The benefits of antidepressants for children and adults appear to be greater than the risks of suicide or suicidal thoughts, a new study analysis suggests.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Assocation, collected data from 27 trials involving children under 18 with major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or non-OCD anxiety disorders.

Researchers found that, compared to placebo, antidepressants were effective in treating all three types of diseases, although the effects were strongest for non-OCD anxiety disorders, intermediate for OCD and more modest in the treatment of children with MDD. They also seemed more effective in adolescents than in younger children.

While their findings did show the drugs increase the risk of suicidal behaviour, this was by less than 1%, about half as many as found in a previous US Food and Drug Administration analysis. In addition, they noted there were no suicides by patients in the studies.

These findings suggest that “treating young people with antidepressants is worth the small risk associated with them, at least in the short term,” said lead author Jeffrey Bridge.

Reluctance to use antidepressants

In 2004, the FDA directed manufacturers to put a black-box warning on all selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors describing the increased risk of suicidal behaviour in children and adolescents being treated with the medication, which has resulted in a reluctance by both patients and families to use these medicines. David Brent, co-author of the study, suggested the FDA should now “consider labelling that calls attention to the risk but wouldn’t have the effect of frightening people away from using the medication when needed.”

The FDA has said the analysis in JAMA is consistent with its own finding on these products and with its recommendations and warnings to consumers.