Adolescent prescriptions on the rise
The percentage of adolescents prescribed mental health medications rose by 250 percent between 1994 and 2001, according to a study released Jan. 3 by the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Prof. Cindy Parks Thomas (Heller), who was the lead author of the study and works in Heller's Schneider Institute for Health Policy, said the study found that one out of every 10 teenage boys who visits the doctor leaves with a prescription for the treatment of a mental health condition. Thomas said the study used an annual national survey of physicians, looking at visits made by adolescents age 14 to 18.
"The growth trends in boys and girls are similar, but boys start at a much higher level of prescribing because boys are on ADHD medications at a greater rate," Thomas said. "Girls, on the other hand, are on antidepressants at a greater rate."
The study identifies an increase in spending on television advertisements by pharmaceutical companies between 1996 and 2000 as a possible cause for the increase in prescriptions.
Additionally, the study notes that when the sharpest rise in these prescriptions occurred, after 1999, the federal government relaxed regulation on advertising of prescription drugs uncertified by the Food and Drug Administration.
Whether the increase in prescriptions parallels an increase in the number of diagnoses doctors are making is critical to understanding the causes of the rise, Thomas said.
"If this reflects an increase in people being diagnosed with mental health conditions, that's really important," Thomas said. "If the increase is not associated with an increase in diagnosis, that means more kids are being prescribed [who are not diagnosed], and that's also really important."
More widespread use of these medications also increases the potential for abuse, particularly among college students, Thomas said.
"Many adolescents are coming to colleges being treated for diagnosis and on medications."
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported last year that although use of cigarettes and other illicit drugs among adolescents has decreased, abuse of prescription drugs has significantly increased.
"One of the things that's happening is there's been a concerted effort to educate young people on hazards of tobacco in past years, and that may have had some results by now," Thomas said. However, she said, less education has taken place on the hazards of prescription drug use.
Thomas said these medications have dangerous side effects. "The more students that are on medications, the more students that [are] being exposed to side effects- antidepressants, in particular, can cause an increased risk in suicide," Thomas said.
Schneider Institute Director Stanley Wallack wrote in an e-mail to the Justice, "Significantly more research is needed to follow this study on reasons for the increase as well as its consequences."
Provost Marty Krauss wrote in an e-mail to the Justice that she hopes people pay attention to this research.
"Dr. Thomas's research focuses on issues that are important to all of us-as parents, as citizens, and as a nation concerned with the future of the next generation of this country.