6% increase in anti-depressant medication for Northern Ireland children
Nearly 12,000 prescriptions for anti-depressants were issued to children and adolescents in Northern Ireland in the last 12 months.
Figures show a rise of 6% in prescriptions handed out to young people here over the past three years.
The statistics relate to a group of medicines called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are used to treat depression and anxiety conditions.
In the 12 months to April, 11,773 prescriptions were issued to young people locally, a jump of around 6% compared to 2015/16.
In total, there were 950,000 prescriptions written between April 2015 and March 2018 across the UK.
Other parts of the UK saw a bigger increase in demand in that time - 15% and 10% in England and Scotland respectively. Figures are not available for Wales.
The statistics, obtained by the BBC after a Freedom of Information request, have caused alarm.
Anne Doherty, the deputy chief executive officer of Northern Ireland mental health charity MindWise, called the figures "concerning".
She said: "It may be that mental ill health is being more readily identified in children and young people,
"However, anti-depressant use in under-18s can cause an increase in self-harm or suicidal thinking. It is vital that a holistic approach to mental health is taken for children and young people."
Ms Doherty said Northern Ireland has a 25% higher rate of mental ill-health than the rest of the UK, but receives less funding.
"We also have a tragically high suicide rate in young people, with many factors such as isolation, poverty and our post conflict society playing a part," she added. "Children and young people who need timely specialist interventions such as therapy, face huge waiting lists and high thresholds for support, which means many receive no help at all."
She said more investment in child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) was required to tackle the problem.
SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan blamed the increase on longer waiting lists.
"Waiting lists are particularly problematic in the Western trust area; the current waiting time for appointments here is 30 weeks, yet the target waiting time for appointments with the Paediatric Clinical Psychology Service is 13 weeks," he said. "Getting the bespoke treatment that children need is proving extremely difficult, if not near impossible."
He added that it was particularly worrying that the steepest rise of anti-depressant use across the UK was among children under the age of 12.
"Mental health issues during our formative years can have long-lasting effects," Mr Durkan said, adding that anti-depressants for children should be considered a "last resort".
"Unfortunately, we have not seen resources being put in this area. This failure is glaring and has been for some time. It is imperative that the issue of waiting times is addressed."
A Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) spokeswoman stressed it was making strides in reducing waiting lists as well as implementing a number of measures with the aim of boosting mental health services for young people across Northern Ireland.
"The HSCB has worked with all five trusts to establish crisis teams and improve access to emergency and urgent mental health care for children and young people," she said.
"In addition, around £1million allocated by the Department of Health will be used for projects specific to child and adolescent mental health services.
"Our current focus is for increased investment towards prevention and early intervention to mitigate the need for specialist child and adolescent mental health services," the spokeswoman added.