1 teenager in 10 uses prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes

Caregivers have been prescribing psychotropic medication for adolescents in increasing numbers.

Although the prescriptions may be appropriate, sometimes the medication ends up in the hands of people other than the intended patients, reports the July 2007 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. In fact, surveys show that about 1 teenager in 10 uses prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes.

In a recent survey of more than 1,000 middle and high school students, researchers sought to find out how often drugs were diverted and how they were used. In the study, up to 60% of students receiving legitimate prescriptions had been approached to divert their medications. About 1 in 10 traded medication. A smaller proportion sold it, and as many as 25% gave it to friends or family members.

There is still much to learn about the motivation and context of all this sharing and trading, says the Harvard Mental Health Letter. We do know that not all rerouting is for recreation. Often the aim seems to be relief of pain, anxiety, or insomnia.

Some experts blame clinicians for writing too many prescriptions. But the researchers believe the problem may be that prescribers find it difficult to discuss the issue of diversion with patients and their families.

Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter , notes, “What helps an anxious child may be poison for a substance-abusing child, but sometimes the two illnesses occur in the same child. Thus a simple solution like reducing the total number of prescriptions cannot work. The real task is to figure out which kids need which medicines and make sure that only those kids get the medicines. Not easy.”

Also in this issue:

  • Antidepressants and suicide
  • How Alcoholics Anonymous works
  • Finding the right treatment for depression
  • Patient treatment preferences affect outcomes of medical trials

The Harvard Mental Health Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $59 per year. Subscribe at www.health.harvard.edu/mental or by calling 1-877-649-9457 (toll free).

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