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5-year mental health outcomes for children and adolescents presenting with psychiatric symptoms to general practitioners in England: a retrospective cohort study.

BACKGROUND: Little information is available on the clinical trajectories of children and adolescents who attend general practice (GP) with psychiatric symptoms. We aimed to examine 5-year service use in English primary care for children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental or mental health symptoms or diagnoses.

METHODS: In this retrospective cohort study, we used anonymised primary care health records from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink Aurum database (CPRD-Aurum). We identified children and adolescents (aged 3-18 years) presenting to primary care in England between Jan 1, 2000, and May 9, 2016, with a symptom or diagnosis of a mental health, behavioural, or neurodevelopmental condition. Participants were excluded if they had less than 1 year of follow-up. We followed up participants from their index date until either death, transfer out of the practice, or the end of data collection on May 5, 2021, and for trajectory analysis we limited follow-up to 5 years. We used group-based multi-trajectory models to identify clusters with similar trajectories over 5 years of follow-up for three primary outcomes: mental health-related GP contacts, psychotropic medication prescriptions, and specialist mental health-care contact. We did survival analysis to examine the associations between trajectory-group membership and hospital admission for self-harm or death by suicide, as indicators of severe psychiatric distress.

FINDINGS: We included 369 340 children and adolescents, of whom 180 863 (49·0%) were girls, 188 438 (51·0%) were boys, 39 (<0·1%) were of indeterminate gender, 290 125 (78·6%) were White, 9161 (2·5%) were South Asian, 10 418 (2·8%) were Black, 8115 (2·2%) were of mixed ethnicity, and 8587 (2·3%) were other ethnicities, and the median age at index presentation was 13·6 years (IQR 8·4-16·7). In the best-fitting, seven-group, group-based multi-trajectory model, over a 5-year period, the largest group (low contact; 207 985 [51·2%]) had low rates of additional service contact or psychotropic prescriptions. The other trajectory groups were moderate, non-pharmacological contact (43 836 [13·0%]); declining contact (25 469 [8·7%]); year-4 escalating contact (18 277 [6·9%]); year-5 escalating contact (18 139; 5·2%); prolonged GP contact (32 147 [8·6%]); and prolonged specialist contact (23 487 [6·5%]). Non-White ethnicity and presentation in earlier study years (eg, 2000-2004) were associated with low-contact group membership. The prolonged specialist-contact group had the highest risk of hospital admission for self-harm (hazard ratio vs low-contact group 2·19 [95% CI 2·03-2·36]) and suicide (2·67 [1·72-4·14]).

INTERPRETATION: Most children and adolescents presenting to primary care with psychiatric symptoms or diagnoses have low or declining rates of ongoing contact. If these trajectories reflect symptomatic improvement, these findings provide reassurance for children and adolescents and their caregivers. However, these trajectories might reflect an unmet need for some children and adolescents.

FUNDING: National Institute for Health and Care Research and the Wellcome Trust.

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