From the Journals

‘Concerning’ uptick in pediatric antipsychotic prescribing



There has been a substantial increase over the last 20 years in antipsychotic prescribing among children and adolescents in England – especially among those with autism, an analysis of primary care records from 7.2 million children and adolescents aged 3-18 years shows.

“This study demonstrates a concerning trend in antipsychotic prescribing in children and adolescents,” study investigator Matthias Pierce, PhD, senior research fellow at the University of Manchester (England) Center for Women’s Mental Health, who jointly led the study, said in a news release.

senior research fellow at the University of Manchester (U.K.) Center for Women’s Mental Health

Dr. Matthias Pierce

“We do not think the changes in prescribing necessarily relate to changes in clinical need; rather, it may be more likely to reflect changes in prescribing practice by clinicians,” Dr. Pierce said.

The study was published online in The Lancet Psychiatry.

Increase in long-term use

Between 2000 and 2019, prescriptions for antipsychotics nearly doubled from 0.06% to 0.11%.

The investigators note that the U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has approved the use of some antipsychotics in patients younger than age 18 with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severely aggressive behavior attributable to conduct disorder.

However, these data suggest antipsychotics are being prescribed for an increasingly broad range of conditions, most commonly autism, but also for attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, tic disorders like Tourrette syndrome, and learning difficulties.

“Broadening use of antipsychotics in developing young people begs questions about their safety over time and demands more research on this topic,” senior author Kathryn Abel, MBBS, PhD, from the University of Manchester said in the news release.

During the study period, antipsychotic prescribing in primary care increased by an average of 3.3% per year and the rate of first prescriptions increased by 2.2% per year.

The data also suggest that more children and adolescents are taking these powerful drugs for longer periods of time. The proportion receiving antipsychotics for at least 6 months after an initial prescription rose from 41.9% in 2000 to 62.8% in 2018.

Prescribing inequities

From 2009 onwards, more than 90% of prescriptions were for atypical antipsychotics.

Over time, risperidone dominated, with more than 60% of all prescriptions, followed by aripiprazole, quetiapine, olanzapine, and haloperidol as the most prescribed antipsychotics.

Boys and older children aged 15-18 years were most likely to receive an antipsychotic. However, the increasing trends were evident in all groups.

The data also point to inequities in prescribing as a result of deprivation levels, with typical antipsychotics prescribed more frequently in more deprived areas over time.

Dr. Pierce said he hopes this study will “help clinicians to evaluate the prescribing of antipsychotics to children more fully and will encourage them to consider better access to alternatives.”

Dr. Abel noted that antipsychotic medications “continue to have a valuable role in the treatment of serious mental illness. These findings represent a descriptive account of antipsychotic prescribing to children and adolescents in the U.K. today and provide a window onto current practice.”

Findings are no surprise

Emily Simonoff, MD, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, offered perspective on the study in a statement from the U.K. nonprofit Science Media Centre.

professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London

Dr. Emily Simonoff

“To clinicians, it will not be surprising that the authors demonstrate an increase in rates of prescriptions over that time period, as there has been a steadily emerging evidence base for the benefits of this group of medication for a range of different indications, which has been further supported by new licensing indications and recommendations from NICE,” Dr. Simonoff said.

For example, “there is good evidence for their benefits for other conditions such as irritability in autism spectrum disorder.

“However, it should also be noted that NICE recommendations for their use in many conditions is as part of a multimodal treatment plan, for example including psychological or behavioral interventions. It’s unclear from the study whether such recommendations were being followed or medication was being used on its own,” she added.

Dr. Simonoff also said it’s “reassuring” that prescribing rates remain very low in the youngest children and notes that the authors “rightly highlight the need for high-quality, longer-term studies on efficacy and, most importantly, adverse effects. This should be a research priority.”

The study had no funding. The authors report no relevant financial relationships. Dr. Simonoff is a member of the NICE guideline development group for the management of autism and has published on the efficacy of antipsychotic medication for irritability in autism.

A version of this article first appeared on

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