Despite worries that too many young people are taking prescription psychiatric drugs, a newly released report says that only 14 percent of teens with a mental disorder are prescribed psychiatric medications.
In most cases, the study found, the prescribed drugs are considered appropriate for their disorders. For example, teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are most likely to take stimulants and teens with depression are most likely to take antidepressants.
The study did not track the use of drugs that weren’t prescribed, such as misusing stimulants as study aids.
The study is based on more than 10,000 interviews with teens ages 13 to 18 between 2001 and 2004 and contradicts “a lot of anecdotal reports that suggest kids are being overmedicated or mis-medicated,” said lead author Kathleen Merikangas, M.D., a researcher from the National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, Md.
Out of the 2,350 teens who did have a mental disorder (anxiety, eating disorders, depression or ADHD), only one in seven had been prescribed a psychiatric drug in the past year.
The specific frequency, however, varied by drug and disorder: one in five teens with ADHD was prescribed a stimulant, for example, compared to one in 22 with anxiety prescribed an antidepressant.
In teens without symptoms of a current disorder, 2.5 percent were recently prescribed a psychiatric drug — most of whom had some signs of distress or a past mental disorder, the researchers said.
Since the interviews were conducted in the early 2000s, the findings may not mirror current trends in youth drug prescriptions, the researchers warned.
Furthermore, the study includes a disproportionate number of children from high income families, said David Rubin, M.D., from Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, who wrote a commentary on the report.
“Medication use by the average population of typical kids in America could be low,” partly because many families with private insurance can’t find or afford any mental health treatment, said Rubin.
Children on Medicaid tend to take more psychiatric drugs. That’s especially true among the smaller subset of youth in foster care, of whom 12 percent were prescribed antipsychotics in 2007, according to Rubin’s past research.
Medicaid enrollees get free mental health care, but where they can access them, those services often lean toward medication instead of talk therapy, Rubin said.