Teens May Abuse Their Prescription Medications

Teens prescribed anti anxiety or sleep medications were more likely to abuse those medications

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Prescribing anti-anxiety and sleep medications may backfire with some teens. The authors of a recent study found that teens who had received prescriptions for these medications were much more likely to abuse them.

These researchers said doctors should assess teens carefully before prescribing this type of medication.

"This is a wake-up call to the medical community as far as the risks involved in prescribing these medications to young people," said lead author Carol J. Boyd, PhD, of the University of Michigan School of Nursing in Ann Arbor. "When taken as prescribed, these drugs are effective and not dangerous. The problem is when adolescents use too many of them or mix them with other substances, especially alcohol.”

She added, "The public often thinks that nonmedical use of these prescription drugs is driven by doctor shopping and drug dealers, but it isn't. It is driven by people with prescriptions who divert their pills to other people, who are usually friends or family members."

According to Cliff Hamrick, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in private practice in Austin, TX, the best way to make sure teens aren't abusing anti-anxiety medications is to limit the use of those medications in the first place.

"First, I believe that people with anxiety are better served by learning life skills — such as exercise, changes in diet and meditation — that will help address anxiety without the need for medications," Hamrick told dailyRx News. "But, if medications are still warranted, then prescribing only a handful of pills at a time (no more than 10) will make it easier for parents to monitor the use of the medication. Also, parents can be the 'gatekeepers' of medication and only give them out when the teen requests them rather than just letting the teen have the bottle."

Dr. Boyd and colleagues studied 2,745 students in Detroit middle and high schools. The study took place from 2009 to 2012.

The students completed an anonymous online survey. Half of the students were girls and half were boys. They were 14 years old on average at the start of the study.

Almost 9 percent of the teens in the study had been prescribed a benzodiazepine anti-anxiety medication (brand names like Xanax, Valium or Klonopin) or sleep medication (Ambien, Lunesta or Restoril). In some cases, the medications had been prescribed years before the study began.

During the study, about 3 percent of the students had a current prescription.

Students who had a current prescription were 10 times more likely than those who had never had a prescription to obtain anti-anxiety or sleep medications illegally, Dr. Boyd and team found. These students were also three times more likely than those without a prescription to self-treat anxiety or insomnia (inability to sleep) with another person's medications.

Students who had a prescription before the study were 12 times more likely to use another person’s anti-anxiety prescription illegally.

Stealing or using another person’s prescribed medications is illegal. And giving or selling a legally prescribed medication to another person can be a felony.

Dr. Boyd and colleagues said doctors should take the following precautions:

  • Inform teens and parents about the risks associated with the medications — including the risk of abuse.
  • Assess teens for substance abuse risk factors before prescribing the medication.
  • Limit medication refills.

These researchers noted that their study was limited to Detroit and may not apply to other places in the US.

Any of these anxiety or sleep medications can impair driving ability. They can be fatal when mixed with alcohol, other medications or illegal drugs.

This study was published Nov. 24 in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

Grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences funded the study. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
November 24, 2014
Last Updated:
March 12, 2015