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When Teens Visit Doctors, Increasingly the Subject is Mental Health

·2 mins

Increasingly, doctor visits by adolescents and young adults involve mental health diagnoses, along with the prescription of psychiatric medications. That was the conclusion of a new study that found that in 2019, 17 percent of outpatient doctor visits for patients ages 13 to 24 in the United States involved a behavioral or mental health condition, including anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm or other issues. That figure rose sharply from 2006, when just 9 percent of doctor’s visits involved psychiatric illnesses.

The study also found a sharp increase in the proportion of visits involving psychiatric medications. In 2019, 22.4 percent of outpatient visits by the 13-24 age group involved the prescription of at least one psychiatric drug, up from 13 percent in 2006.

The reasons for this shift are not entirely clear. Some experts believe that modern life presents a new kind of mental pressure, even as society has limited the risks of physical ailments.

The latest study does not provide a reason for the shift but notes that the pandemic alone was not the sole cause. The findings suggest that the increase in mental health conditions among youth occurred in the setting of already increasing rates of psychiatric illness. Treatment and prevention strategies will need to consider factors beyond the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic.

The analysis was drawn from a national survey that collects information about patient visits. Between 2006 and 2019, patients aged 13 to 24 made 1.1 billion healthcare visits, of which 145 million involved mental health issues. The study found that the share of mental health-related visits and the prescription of psychiatric medications, including antidepressants, stimulants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and anti-anxiety drugs, increased each year.

The study did not specify the exact level of increase in antidepressant prescriptions, leaving the question of whether it reflects the severity of conditions or changes in prescribing attitudes and trends. However, the researchers noted that the conditions are being treated aggressively.