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Teens’ Mental Health Issues Under Medicated, Says New Study

The use of medications to treat mental health issues often carries with it a stigma. Perceptions of others’ judgments about the use of medication to treat disorders can prevent individuals from seeking the help they need to be mentally healthy.

The problem can be even more complicated when it comes to treating children and teens for mental health challenges. The belief that kids will outgrow their symptoms, or that what they are experiencing is a normal part of childhood, may be eclipsed by a reluctance to put a child on medication. Parents may fear that their child or teen will be labeled according to a disorder and stigmatized.

In addition, some parents may be reacting to a public perception that children are being medicated without good reason. However, contrary to this widespread belief, a recent study shows that the majority of teenagers with mental health issues are not getting the treatment necessary.

The study finds that among teens who have a mental health disorder, only 14 percent were prescribed a medication to treat their condition. Overall, the study showed that the teens who were taking medications were receiving the appropriate drug for their condition. For instance, those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were most likely prescribed stimulants.

The study’s scope did not include the examination of the drugs used by the teens that were not prescribed for a mental health condition (for example, using stimulants as a way to boost academic efforts).

The study focused on interviews with teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18, conducted from 2001 to 2004. Lead author Kathleen Merikangas, M.D., is a researcher from the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Merikangas explains that the findings give another side to the public belief of overmedicated kids, based on anecdotal information.

Among those teens diagnosed with a mental disorder, such as eating disorders, depression, anxiety and ADHD, about one in seven had been issued a prescription to treat their condition in the past twelve months.

The prescription rate varied by medication and by mental health condition. More teens who had ADHD had received medication for treatment when compared with those who were diagnosed with anxiety.

Among teens who did not meet criteria for a disorder at the time of the interview, there were 2.5 percent who had recently been prescribed a medication to treat a disorder. Most of these teens had shown signs of distress or had a history of a mental disorder.

The authors note that because the interviews were conducted in the early part of the decade, they may not reflect the current situation among teens with mental disorders.

In addition, the interviews were conducted among a disproportionately higher income group of students. However, the use of medication could be low as reflected, because among many families of lower income, the use of such medications could be limited because of a lack of funds for such treatment.

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