Teens Receiving Antipsychotic Drugs Without Mental Health Diagnosis

By Zachary Siegel 07/08/15

There is growing concern, now with empirical evidence, about America’s over-medicated youth.

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The Fix recently covered the high rates of psychotropic medication being prescribed to children in foster care. According to a new study, however, nearly 3% of all children and adolescents are prescribed antipsychotic drugs.

Interestingly, fewer than half of those prescriptions out of the 2.5 million analyzed between 2006-2010 were not prescribed for a mental disorder diagnosis. The study's press release suggests this might be “due to stigma about mental illness, or because primary care physician providers are concerned about reimbursement for treatment related to such diagnoses.”

This leaves many worried about the current trends of over-medicating children.

Researchers of this study found that nearly 1.5% of boys ages 10 to 18 received a prescription for an antipsychotic medication in 2010. Also, for young people ages 1 to 18, the majority of prescriptions were prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). For people in the college age bracket,19 to 24, depression was found to be the most common diagnosis for those receiving antipsychotics.

It’s a major concern that antipsychotics are currently unapproved by the FDA to treat conditions like ADHD and depression, according to The Washington Post.

Dr. Michael Schoenbaum, one of the contributing researchers, said in the press release, "Antipsychotics should be prescribed with care," and that “They can adversely affect both physical and neurological function and some of their adverse effects can persist even after the medication is stopped."

He also said, “No prior study has had the data to look at age patterns in antipsychotic use among children the way we do here."

Furthermore, the study found that boys ages 1 to 6 were nearly twice as likely to be prescribed antipsychotics, and almost three times as likely to be prescribed them between the ages of 7 and 12, than girls were. But by the time children grow up and reach the ages of 19 to 24, the difference between the two sexes evens out.

Still, more than 1.6% of people in this college age bracket are prescribed antipsychotics.

“In addition to having a new look at antipsychotic use among youth, one positive finding coming from this study is that around 75% of these kids have at least some contact with a psychiatrist,” said Nation Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas Insel, M.D.

You can read the study published in JAMA Psychiatry here.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.