More than one-fifth of American youth reported misuse of their psychoactive prescription, a new study found.
In a survey of kids ages 12-17 prescribed opioids, stimulants, tranquilizers, or sedatives, 20.9% — equating to about 1.3 million youth — said they used their medication in a way that wasn’t prescribed or directed for them within the previous year, reported Israel Agaku, PhD, of Harvard School of Dental Medicine in Boston, and colleagues.
Of these youth, 3.4% were further classified as having substance use disorder, defined as abuse or dependence on the psychoactive prescription medication within the past year, the researchers wrote online in Family Medicine & Community Health.
Among kids prescribed two or more psychoactive prescription medications at the same time, nearly half reported misusing said medication.
“The largely overlapping population profiles for medical use versus misuse indicates the high abuse liability of these prescription substances,” Agaku’s group pointed out. “Having serious psychological distress was consistently associated with misuse of every assessed psychoactive prescription medication.”
The team suggested that healthcare providers approach these scenarios with open communication and with a “team approach … to ensure evidence-based guidelines are used when assessing for and treating mental health and substance use difficulties.”
The researchers gathered data from the 2015-2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which included self-reported survey responses from 110,556 U.S. youth and young adults ages 12-25.
Just looking at respondents between the ages of 12 to 17, Agaku and co-authors found that 25% reported using a prescription psychoactive medication within the previous year, while 5.7% had a prescription for two or more of these medications.
Opioids were the most commonly used family of psychoactive prescriptions drugs, used by 19% of all youth with a psychoactive drug prescription within the prior year. This was followed by stimulants (7.2%), tranquilizers (4.3%), and sedatives (2.2%).
However, among each user of a psychoactive prescription drug, tranquilizers were the most common to be misused, with an estimated 40.1% of youth (0.4 million individuals) ages 12 to 17 reporting misuse in the prior year. This was followed by 24.2% (0.4 million) of those prescribed a stimulant reported misuse, followed by opioids (17.6%, 0.8 million) and sedatives (14.2%, 80,000).
And for this age group, 7% of those prescribed a tranquilizer were estimated to have a substance use disorder, followed by 3.6% prescribed a sedative, 3% of those prescribed stimulants, and 2.6% prescribed opioids.
Looking at survey responses from those 18 to 25, the researchers found that 41% said they were prescribed and used a psychoactive medication, with 13% prescribed two or more agents.
Similarly, opioids were the most commonly prescribed psychoactive drug, with nearly a third saying they used the substances within the past year. However, similar to the patterns seen in younger teens, stimulants and tranquilizers were more likely to be misused.
Youth and young adults tended to be more likely to misuse psychoactive medications if using other non-prescription substances like alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, the investigators reported.
“Rather than asking only about cigarette smoking, pediatric practitioners should screen for different commonly used substances, including ‘social use.’ Specifically asking youth and young adults if they have used certain substances, including occasional use, is important as those who use such substances infrequently or only occasionally may not self-identify as users if asked in generic terms,” Agaku and co-authors explained.
They also underscored the importance of addressing psychological distress among youth and integrating social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and medical doctors into treatment plans for young people with mental health and substance misuse issues.
Last Updated February 02, 2021
The survey was sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Agaku and co-authors reported no disclosures.