CDC: 6% of teens take psychotropic drugs
December 4th, 2013
09:03 AM ET

CDC: 6% of teens take psychotropic drugs

The debate around adolescents and psychotropic drug use may be quieted - ever so slightly - by new data.

More than 6% of adolescents reported using psychotropic medications during the past month, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Six percent is pretty much what I would expect for the prescription of psychotropic medications based on what we know about new disorders and how prevalent they would be among adolescents," said Bruce Jonas, a mental health epidemiologist with the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC, who compiled the data.

Psychotropic medications are used to alter the mood, behavior or overall functioning of persons with certain mental health conditions.

According to the survey, which accounts for medication use between 2005-2010, adolescents were evenly split between taking antidepressants (3.2%) and drugs to address attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (3.2%), with relatively smaller numbers reporting taking drugs to treat conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

About 8% of 12-17 year olds in the United States have major depression, while about 11% of 4-17 year olds are diagnosed with ADHD, according to federal data.

"It's not unreasonable that about half would be prescribed medication," said Jonas. "Psychotropic medication is not the only avenue if an adolescent is challenged by mood disorders or ADHD.  There could be psychotherapeutic intervention."

"Everyone who is depressed doesn't have to take medication and everyone who has ADD doesn't have to take medication," said Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

But Duckworth says he is concerned about a slight downturn in the number of prescriptions for antidepressants among adolescents during the past decade.

Previous CDC data, spanning 1999-2004, reflect 3.7% of adolescents were prescribed antidepressants, compared with 3.2% in the subsequent five years.  By comparison, prescriptions for ADHD medications went up during the same time period.

Black box warnings on antidepressants (requiring, among other things, close monitoring of patients) may have been a deterrent for some primary care doctors who previously prescribed the drugs, said Duckworth.

The black box guidance was issued by the Food and Drug Administration in 2007.

"I'm not convinced it's a good thing that antidepressants went down after black box warnings," said Duckworth, who is also a child and adolescent psychiatrist.  "It may mean untreated major depression, which is a risk factor for suicide."

The data were compiled as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

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