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Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on April 24, 2013
A new national survey finds that one in four teens has misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime, a jump of 33 percent in just five years.
Using data from The Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS), researchers found, for instance, that one in eight teens (13 percent) now report they have taken the stimulants Ritalin or Adderall when it was not prescribed for them, at least once in their lifetime.
“These data make it very clear: the problem is real, the threat immediate and the situation is not poised to get better,” said Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of The Partnership at Drugfree.org.
“Parents fear drugs like cocaine or heroin and want to protect their kids. But the truth is that when misused and abused, medicines — especially stimulants and opioids — can be every bit as dangerous and harmful as illicit street drugs.”
Researchers believe the sustained trend in teen medicine abuse is associated with inappropriate parental and caregiver oversight. Investigators say that nearly one-third of parents say they believe Rx stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall, normally prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can improve a teen’s academic performance – even if the teen does not have ADHD.
Further, according to some, parents are often not communicating the dangers of Rx medicine misuse and abuse to their kids, nor are they safeguarding their medications at home and disposing of unused medications properly.
“Medicine cabinets are the number one access point for teens who want to misuse and abuse prescription drugs. That’s why we are making a concerted effort to let parents and caregivers know how important it is to safely dispose of their unused, unwanted or expired medicines. Doing so can literally save a life,” said Marcia Lee Taylor of The Partnership at Drugfree.org.
Trends in teen prescription drug abuse according to the new PATS data (2008-2012):
- One in four teens (24 percent) reports having misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime (up from 18 percent in 2008 to 24 percent in 2012), which translates to about 5 million teens;
- Of those kids who said they abused Rx medications, one in five (20 percent) has done so before the age of 14;
- More than a quarter of teens (27 percent) mistakenly believe that “misusing and abusing prescription drugs to get high is safer than using street drugs,” and one-third of teens (33 percent) say they believe “it’s okay to use prescription drugs that were not prescribed to them to deal with an injury, illness or physical pain.”
Experts say that medicine abuse is one of the most significant and preventable adolescent health problems that families face today. Rx stimulants a key area of concern, with misuse and abuse of Ritalin and Adderall in particular driving the noted increases in teen medicine abuse.
Stimulants are a class of drugs that enhance brain activity and are commonly prescribed to treat health conditions including ADHD and obesity. The 2012 data found:
- One in eight teens (about 2.7 million) now reports having misused or abused the Rx stimulants Ritalin or Adderall at least once in their lifetime;
- 9 percent of teens (about 1.9 million) report having misused or abused the Rx stimulants Ritalin or Adderall in the past year (up from 6 percent in 2008) and 6 percent of teens (1.3 million) report abuse of Ritalin or Adderall in the past month (up from 4 percent in 2008);
- One in four teens (26 percent) believes that prescription drugs can be used as a study aid.
Although abuse of prescription pain medicine remains at unacceptably high levels among teens, the new PATS data shows that use may be flattening.
Teen abuse of prescription pain relievers like Vicodin and OxyContin has remained stable since 2011 with one in six teens (16 percent) reporting abuse or misuse of an Rx pain reliever at least once in their lifetime. One in 10 teens (10 percent) admits to abusing or misusing an Rx painkiller in the past year.
Nevertheless, the availability of prescription drugs (in the family medicine cabinet, in the homes of friends and family) makes them that much easier to abuse.
The new survey findings stress that teens are more likely to abuse Rx medicines if they think their parents “don’t care as much if they get caught using prescription drugs, without a doctor’s prescription, than they do if they get caught using illegal drugs.”
Some parents (one in six or 16 percent) believe that using prescription drugs to get high is safer than using street drugs.
Parents often fail to talk with teens about substance abuse (16 percent of parents); in comparison, a majority of teens (81 percent) say they have discussed the risks of marijuana use with their parents, 80 percent have discussed alcohol and nearly one-third of teens (30 percent) have discussed crack/cocaine.
Source: The Partnership at Drugfree.org/Metlife Foundation