Rise in psychotropic drug prescribing in children and adolescents during 1992-2001: a population-based study in the UK

Eur J Epidemiol. 2009;24(4):211-6. doi: 10.1007/s10654-009-9321-3. Epub 2009 Mar 5.


Background: The trend towards increased psychotropic drug prescribing in children and adolescents is well recognised in North America and continental Europe. However, it is unclear to what extent these studies are applicable to clinical practice in the United Kingdom (UK). This study was conducted to estimate the prevalence of psychotropic drug prescribing in children and adolescents aged <19 years in general practice in the UK from January 1992 to December 2001.

Methods: Data were obtained from the General Practice Research Database (GPRD). Annual age- and sex-specific prevalence of psychotropic drug prescribing was calculated.

Results: A total of 143,079 prescriptions were issued to 34,398 study subjects. Stimulant prescriptions rose significantly from 0.03 per 1,000 (95% confidence interval 0.02-0.04) in 1992 to 2.9 per 1,000 (2.52-3.32) in 2001; a 96-fold increase. Methylphenidate accounted for the majority of stimulant prescriptions; 2.4% (349/14,370) of stimulant prescriptions were prescribed to children aged <6 years. Increased prescribing was also noted for antidepressants (1.6-fold), hypnotics/anxiolytics (1.3-fold), antipsychotics (1.3-fold) and anticonvulsants (1.3-fold), whilst the prevalence of clonidine and lithium prescribing remained fairly stable throughout the study period. The use of antidepressant, hypnotic/anxiolytic and anticonvulsant increased with increasing age. A high proportion of boys received stimulants, whereas antidepressants and hypnotics/anxiolytics were more likely prescribed to girls.

Conclusion: There is an increased trend of psychotropic drug use in children and adolescents in the UK practice. Since most psychotropic drugs are not licensed for use in children at this time, research is needed to investigate the efficacy and long-term safety in this population.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Age Distribution
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Confidence Intervals
  • Drug Prescriptions / statistics & numerical data*
  • Drug Utilization / trends*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / trends*
  • Prevalence
  • Psychotropic Drugs / classification
  • Psychotropic Drugs / therapeutic use*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sex Distribution
  • United Kingdom


  • Psychotropic Drugs