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Psychotropic Medications Are Prescribed Appropriately Among U.S. Teens, National Study Finds

Science Update

Prescribed psychotropic medications are not being misused or overused among U.S. youth, according to a study using nationally representative data sponsored by NIMH. The study was published December 3, 2012, online ahead of print in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.


young girl talking to therapist

Psychotropic medications affect the brain chemicals associated with mood and behavior. Some studies and media reports have raised concerns about their use among youth. However, much of the concern stems from information found in anecdotal reports, small clinical samples, or insurance databases rather than on representative samples of U.S. youth with clinical assessments of emotional and behavioral disorders. Studies from regional community samples have found widely varying rates, which can lead to skewed perceptions. For example, different studies have found a wide range of stimulant medication use for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—from 7 percent to 72 percent—likely due to methodological and regional differences. As a result, it has been difficult to get a clear, accurate understanding of medication use among youth.

Kathleen Merikangas, Ph.D., of NIMH and colleagues collected information on specific medication use in the National Comorbidity Study-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), a nationally representative, face-to-face survey from 2004 of more than 10,000 teens ages 13 to 18.The teens were asked questions that helped to ascertain information about mental disorders and service use. A previous report published in October 2010 using data from the NCS-A indicated that about 20 percent of U.S. youth are affected by some type of mental disorder during their lifetime serious enough to affect their functioning. In this most recent analysis, the researchers examined patterns of prescribed medication use among youth who met criteria for a wide range of mental disorders. Psychotropic medications that were examined include antipsychotics, antidepressants, and stimulants.

Results of the Study

Among those youth who met criteria for any mental disorder, 14.2 percent reported that they had been treated with a psychotropic medication. Teens with ADHD had the highest rates of prescribed medication use at 31 percent, while 19.7 percent of those with a mood disorder like depression or bipolar disorder were taking psychotropic medication. Among those with eating disorders, about 19 percent were taking a psychotropic medication, and 11.6 percent of those with anxiety disorders reported taking medication. Very few youth reported use of antipsychotic medications. They were most frequently used by youth with severe bipolar disorder (1.7 percent) or a neurodevelopmental disorder such as autism (2.0 percent).

Approximately 2.5 percent of teens without a diagnosed mental disorder were prescribed a psychotropic medication. Among these youth, 78 percent reported having a previous mental or neurodevelopmental disorder and associated psychological distress or impairment.


The data suggest that most adolescent youth who are taking psychotropic medications have serious behavioral, cognitive or emotional disturbances. The findings also showed that youth being treated by a mental health professional were more likely to be receiving appropriate medication as opposed to those being treated within general medicine or other settings. However, more research is needed on medication use among children younger than age 13.


Merikangas K, He J, Rapoport J, Vitiello B, Olfson M. Medication use in US Youth with Mental Disorders. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. Online ahead of print Dec 3, 2012.