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Prescriptions for Ritalin and other ADHD drugs double in a decade

Nearly a million prescriptions for Ritalin and related drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were dispensed last year – more than double the number of a decade ago.

The figures have prompted a damning indictment of the system from experts who claim that the running down of mental health services has led to children being misdiagnosed and inappropriately prescribed drugs.

There were 922,200 prescriptions last year for methylphenidate hydrochloride, the chemical name for Ritalin, and similar products. In 2010, 661,000 were dispensed compared with 359,100 in 2004. Guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence suggest that the use of these drugs should only be a last resort. There have been repeated warnings from experts that clinicians were too readily prescribing psychostimulants to children when the evidence suggested there were no long-term benefits. Animal studies have also raised concerns over the potential for damage.

Tony Lloyd, chief executive officer of the ADHD Foundation, which offers support for children with the condition, said children were being let down by a cash-starved system. NHS spending on children’s mental health services in England has fallen by more than 6% in real terms since 2010.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence says drugs should only be used as a last resort for ADHD. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian