Are Teens Overmedicated?

Teenager use of mental health medication does not appear excessive

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Are teenagers today being prescribed too many antidepressants, stimulants and other mental health drugs? Many doctors and parents believe so, but is there evidence for it?

At least one recent study found there is little reason for concern about teenagers' prescribed use of mental health medications.

Less than 20 percent of all teens with mental health conditions are actually taking medication for their conditions.

"Take medication only as your doctor directs."

The study, led by Kathleen R. Merikangas, PhD, of the National Institute of Mental Health, aimed to determine how medication is doled out to adolescents with mental disorders. The researchers analyzed data from a nationally representative group of 10,123 teens, based on direct household interviews and school surveys.

They asked what psychotropic drugs (mental health medications) the teens had been prescribed and what conditions they had been diagnosed with based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).

  • The researchers found that 14.2 percent of youth aged 13 to 18 reported they had been treated with a psychotropic medication within the past year.
  • The most common medication prescribed for those with mood disorders was antidepressants, which 14.1 percent of teens with mood disorders reported taking. Among those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), 20.4 percent reported taking prescribed stimulants.
  • Overall, the group most likely to be prescribed medication were those with ADHD, 31 percent of whom were taking mental health prescriptions.
  • Meanwhile, 19.7 percent of those with diagnosed mood disorders, 19.3 percent of those with behavior disorders and 11.6 percent of those with anxiety disorders were on medication.
  • Additionally, 19.3 percent of those with eating disorders and 14.4 percent of those with substance abuse disorders had been prescribed mental health drugs.

Use of antipsychotic drugs was very uncommon among the teens and was prescribed only for those with serious developmental disorders. Among teens who had not been diagnosed with a mental health disorder based on the DSM-IV, less than 2.5 percent had been prescribed a mental health medication in the past year.

Even among these teens, however, most had symptoms of a psychological condition, a previous mental health disorder, a developmental disorder or enough of the symptoms to be just barely on the edge of an official diagnosis for a condition.

The researchers also analyzed how the medication was being prescribed and found that "appropriate medication use was significantly more frequent among those in treatment in the mental health specialty sector than general medicine or other settings."

The researchers concluded that their findings showed little reason to be concerned about the overmedication of teens or the overuse of mental health drugs among adolescents.

The study was published December 3 in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 1, 2012
Last Updated:
December 4, 2012