Treatment with antidepressants increases the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior in patients age 24 and younger, according to proposed changes to the drugs' labels unveiled Wednesday by federal health officials.

The proposed changes would expand a warning now on the labels that applies only to children and adolescents treated with the drugs.

The Food and Drug Administration put forth its plan to update the drug labels early Wednesday at the start of a meeting of outside advisers convened to discuss the proposal. The changes also would include a recommendation that patients of all ages be carefully monitored, especially when beginning antidepressant treatment.

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Mental health experts are worried that additional warnings about the risk of suicides linked to antidepressants could curtail their use and ultimately do more harm than good.

The proposed changes come on the heels of an FDA review that found use of the drugs may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior among young adults ages 18 to 24.

But adding "black box" or other warnings to the drugs could scare away doctors, parents and patients, mental health experts caution. They warn that people with untreated depression — about half of those who suffer from the disease — face an estimated 15 percent greater likelihood of death by suicide.

"My concern is that by not simply promoting good standards of care and by putting on a black-box label, the FDA may unwittingly limit further access to care," said Dr. Carolyn Robinowitz, president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association.

However, use of antidepressants continues to grow, with nearly 190 million prescriptions dispensed in the United States last year, according to IMS Health, a health care information company. That suggests doctors have placed more weight on the long-term benefits of the drugs than on any short-term risks, Dr. Thomas Laughren, director of the FDA's division of psychiatry products, told panelists.

The FDA recently completed a mass review of 372 studies involving about 100,000 patients and 11 antidepressants, including Lexapro, Zoloft, Prozac and Paxil. When the results are analyzed by age, it becomes clear there is an elevated but short-term risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior among adults 18 to 24 that approaches that seen in children, the FDA said in documents released before Wednesday's meeting of its psychopharmacologic drugs advisory committee.

The FDA's analysis of the multiple studies suggests an age-related shift in the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior associated with treatment with the drugs. For instance, antidepressants seem to protect against suicidal thoughts and behavior in adults 30 and older, with the effect most pronounced in patients over 65.

In May, GlaxoSmithKline and the FDA warned Paxil may raise the risk of suicidal behavior in young adults and changed the drug's label to reflect that risk.

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