Psychiatric drug prescriptions have soared amongst Americans, with 73 percent more adults and 50 percent more children using such drugs in 2006 compared to a decade earlier.
Seniors citizen prescriptions have doubled in the same time period.
The researchers, Sherry Glied and Richard Frank, attribute the increase in prescriptions to primary care doctors becoming more familiar with psychotropic medications, not to a trend in over-prescribing medications for concerns that in the past would have been treated by other methods (or simply left untreated).
The researchers also suggest that lower-cost drugs have become more widely available and that their data reflects an overall trend in improved access to mental health care.
“Greater availability of medications to treat conditions like Alzheimer’s and increased access to prescription drugs through the Medicare Modernization Act may have also played a role in doctors’ prescribing drugs to seniors,” said Sherry Glied, Professor and Chair of Health Policy and Management, Mailman School of Public Health, at Columbia University.
The researchers examined national prescribing data from 1996 to 2006.
Rather than a trend toward overprescribing, this trend reflects improved access as more insurance companies are offering mental health services and more psychiatrists are accepting health insurance, according to the authors.
Children’s access has grown through the expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The number of children diagnosed and treated for mental health conditions during primary care visits doubled between 1996 and 2006.
“It’s a mixed future for access to mental health care in our country,” said Glied.
“On one hand, the federal government is expanding protections like CHIP, which helps the neediest children. But on the other hand, the economic downturn may mean that more people lose their health insurance and will no longer be able to afford mental health care.”
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.
In addition, more people with serious mental illnesses are imprisoned or incarcerated. The authors estimate that 7 percent of people with persistent mental illnesses are put in jail or prison every year.
In a related study, Richard Frank, Professor of Health Economics at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues found that mental health care spending grew 17 percent from 2001 to 2003, exceeding historical averages, which the authors attribute to increased spending on new prescription drugs.
Source: Health Affairs