Doctors are concerned about the number of children and young people being prescribed anti-depressants.
Pharmac figures showed about 3000 anti-depressant prescriptions for children aged under 13 were filled in 2010, and about 14,000 for teenagers aged 13 to 17.
A total of 1.4 million prescriptions were filled in New Zealand from July 2010 until June 2011.
Canterbury had the highest rate in the country, with 209,000 prescriptions in the past year, up from 197,000 in 2010.
The number of children being prescribed anti-depressants had surprised some doctors who believed only specialists should be prescribing the drugs for children aged under 13.
"In fact that kind of decision should be made not by one but a team of specialists in conjunction with the family," Radius Medical general manager Dr Navin Rajan said.
Rajan said he had not needed to refer any of his young patients for further diagnosis by a specialist.
"I for one would not be making that kind of diagnosis. It would be a child having extreme behavioural issues that would be referred for further assessment - only a specialist should be making a depression diagnosis," he said.
Pharmac medical director Dr Peter Moodie said he would prefer that no-one under 13 was on anti-depressants.
"But the reality is some of these children are and our impression is it's usually prescribed by a specialist psychiatrist. We can't bury our head in the sand - there are young children with severe psychological problems.
"It's making sure we're not using anti-depressants unnecessarily and wrongly in children."
Moodie said that while the number of prescriptions for all of New Zealand was increasing, the figures were not ringing alarm bells.
"We're seeing some growth, but there's normally about a 3 to 4 per cent growth in pharmaceuticals across the board every year."
It could also be attributed to a greater awareness of depression, he said.
However, growth figures had to be taken very carefully, because not all prescriptions were picked up prior to 2009, he said.
Hamilton GP Dr Leo Revell felt the higher numbers of children on anti-depressants might be a sign more children were being referred to a specialist.
"So maybe this is a good thing given our teenage suicide statistics - maybe more young people are getting the help they need," he said.
There were 18 anti-depressants on the New Zealand market, with three added in the last year or two, Moodie said.
While Canterbury had the highest rates, Tairawhiti and the West Coast districts had prescribed the least amount of anti-depressants, at about 10,000 - 12,000 each year.
Moodie said that in 2003, Pharmac spending on anti-depressants hit a peak of about $30 million while $20m was now being spent.
"Although the numbers have gone up, the prices have gone down," he said.
- MARYANNE TWENTYMAN, SARAH YOUNG
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