An article noting with alarm that one in nine adolescents (and one in six young adults) is receiving a controlled medication (meaning pain killers, sedatives, Ritalin-type drugs) seriously underestimates the extent of the psychiatric medicating of the young in America, which continues apace.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, December 1, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

Only One in Nine Kids Is Prescribed Controlled Meds! That's Nothing!

A widely distributed Reuters article announced, "The chance that a teenager or young adult will receive a prescription for a controlled medication has nearly doubled in the last 15 years in the U.S., according to a new report."

But it's only one in nine - that's nothing! We can all breathe a sigh of relief.

The number for young adults (those in their twenties) was higher - one in six.

(Note: these data are from 2007)

The drugs with which the report was concerned were controlled substances with a street market - "prescriptions for medication that have the potential for abuse, such as pain killers, sedatives and stimulants like Ritalin" (emphasis added).

Which leaves out some pretty important psychiatric, psychoactive prescriptions. There are six types of psychiatric medications.

  • Antidepressants, for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, et al. 
  • Antipsychotics, for psychoses and increasingly for behavioral disorders.
  • Mood stabilizers, used for bipolar disorder - an increasingly diagnosed disorder.
  • Anxiolytics, to treat anxiety disorders.
  • Stimulants, like Ritalin, for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and to suppress appetite.
  • Depressants, including sedatives and pain killers.

So the report was only worried about the last two - stimulant and depressant drugs - which are controlled due to their illicit commercial value.

The figure in the report didn't include antidepressants. In 2008, Scientific American featured the article, "The Medicated Americans: Antidepressant Prescriptions on the Rise. . . .How did a once rare condition become so common?" Kids - for whom depression is being diagnosed earlier, more often, and with greater chronicity - are special recipients of ADs.

But depression - while accelerating rapidly in kids - is not the fastest-growing such diagnosis. That would be bipolar. In 2008, PBS's Frontline series screened "The Medicated Child": "In recent years, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of children being diagnosed with serious psychiatric disorders and prescribed medications . . . . ‘The rates of bipolar diagnoses in children have increased markedly in many communities over the last five to seven years,' says Dr. Steven Hyman, a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health."

So, counting all categories of psychiatric drugs, the figure is far higher than the 1-in-9 Reuters headlined. I would guess that each year, one in four teens receives one or another psychiatric med - and one in three of those in their twenties. (It is quite likely that in the communities where psychiatric diagnoses are more prevalent - poor communities - there could be much higher rates of prescriptions for such drugs if people had full access to psychiatric treatment.)

This figure is my own estimate - I await the study that definitively counts the number of annual psychiatric diagnoses and prescriptions for children, teens, and young adults.

What does this rate say about kids and young people? What does it say about our society's views of childhood, psychiatric diagnoses, psychiatric medication? What happens to adults who were medicated as children (children diagnosed for depression are more likely to be depressed in adulthood)? Antidepressant use and bipolar diagnoses have - the word that is often used - skyrocketed. Is there any upper limit to such diagnoses and prescriptions? Will we ever announce a campaign to reverse these trends?

Stay tuned.

Picture from Frontline Website.

First comment in: "Still, far too many mentally ill people are unmedicated, and that number seems low to me."  That's what I'm talking about!