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Fears are looming young New Zealanders with ADHD are being medicated unnecessarily after a study revealed the rate of prescribing has soared.
ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a condition affecting part of the brain responsible for filtering and controlling attention, behaviour, emotion, energy, motor control and judgement.
In New Zealand, about one in 20 people live with the condition.
Left untreated, ADHD can affect learning development and social interaction.
A study published in today’s New Zealand Medical Journal found the rate at which New Zealanders aged 1-24 were being prescribed ADHD medication had doubled from 516 to 996 per 100,000 from 2007 to 2017.
One of the study’s authors, University of Auckland psychology researcher Stephanie D’Souza, said it was alarming as there was no evidence the rate of ADHD had risen over this period.
She said the jump could be due to more people getting picked up, which was a good thing, but there was also concern medication was being overprescribed, which had been seen overseas.
Another worry was that children were being prescribed medication without the right support network, which was a crucial part of treatment, Dr D’Souza said.
Researchers said not every child diagnosed with ADHD needed to be on medication.
"The choice to medicate should depend on what is best for the child and family preferences, with particular consideration given to the benefits of going on medication against the potential risks associated with medication side effects."
Researchers found youngsters aged 7 to 17 had the highest prescription rate, while the rate for children aged 0 to 6 had barely moved over the decade.
Point Chevalier School principal and Auckland Primary Principals’ Association president Stephen Lethbridge said he had not seen an explosion of children coming through with ADHD but at his school he did see a handful each year who were commonly picked up at ages 8, 9 and 10.
"We encourage any parents who are having issues to talk to schools as we do have additional funding to help cater for high-needs students."
Dr D’Souza said the study also found that for European children the rate of prescription was higher among poor families but for Maori and Pasifika it was much lower for children from poorer families.
More research was needed to address those barriers, Dr D’Souza said.
ADHD New Zealand chairman Darrin Bull said he had seen a huge increase in children and parents seeking help but support was still lacking.
"I have seen children getting kicked out of school because their ADHD went undetected or there wasn’t the right support available."
Researchers are calling on the Ministry of Health to review New Zealand’s flawed ADHD assessment and treatment guidelines that were published in 2001.
Ministry clinical chief adviser Andi Shirtcliffe said a review had not been considered but additional research around equity of access to medicines and health services was a priority and important.