News out today shows that psychiatric prescriptions have risen 73 percent in adults and 50 percent for children in the 1996 to 2006 time period. Seniors’ prescriptions for medications such as antidepressants and atypical antipsychotics during the same time period doubled (something that USA Today strangely terms as a “spike,” despite it occurring over a decade).

The problem with this data is that we really don’t have much to compare it to. Is a 7 percent annual increase in psychiatric prescriptions over a 10 year time period indicative of over-prescribing and effective pharmaceutical marketing? Or would we expect a similar increase no matter what? (Sadly, no researchers track “prescriptions” of psychotherapy, so we don’t even have other treatment modalities we can compare these numbers to.)

The researchers suggest, not surprisingly, that the increase is due mainly to the greater recognition of mental illness in people, and that people are feeling more comfortable seeking out treatment for mental health concerns, primarily through their family physician (not a mental health specialist). This explains a great deal, since most family docs reach for the prescription pad rather than their Rolodex (for a referral to a mental health specialist) when it comes to treating mental health concerns.

More older adults are getting diagnosed with mental illness as they age (nearly double the amount from 1996), so it’s not surprising that as diagnosis doubles, so does treatment. It’s not so much a question of over-prescribing as it may be one of over-diagnosis. This trend is likely to continue, however, as the Baby Boomer generation retires and we experience a great influx of new seniors.

The troubling part of the data, though, comes with the increase in prescriptions of atypical antipsychotics amongst older Americans. Such drugs are not approved for the treatment of dementia and related senior concerns, yet are routinely prescribed to them by doctors. Why? It’s unclear, but it may be due to the expectation that “newer medications = better,” a falsehood not at all supported by the research. The trend isn’t positive:

Although the authors found improved access to mental health care for many, challenges remain for more vulnerable populations. Treatment for elderly people with mental limitations that make it hard for them to conduct activities of daily living — such as dressing, eating, or bathing — without assistance declined between 1996 and 2006.

The most at-risk population is getting less treatment, and those who do get treatment will more often than not be given a psychiatric medication prescription as their sole option.

This is progress?

Read the full article: Psychiatric Drug Use on the Rise