Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: Drug diversion by adolescents

Commentary

Drug diversion by adolescents

"Pills are so easy to get; I can get Vicodin, Adderall, or Ritalin anytime I want at school," a 16-year-old student told one of the authors of a recent study on how teenagers use prescription medications.

Surveys show that about 1 in 10 teenagers uses prescription drugs — pain medication, stimulants, and sedatives — for nonmedical purposes. In March 2007, a leading pediatrics journal published a survey of more than 1,000 middle and high school students. The University of Michigan researchers aimed to find out how often these drugs were diverted and how they were used. This study is particularly helpful because it includes such a large and ethnically diverse group of young people.

Caregivers have been prescribing psychotropic medication for adolescents in increasing numbers — as much as a fourfold rise since the mid-1990s. Although this prescribing may be appropriate, there is evidence that much of the medication is being redirected to children other than the intended patients. Teens receiving psychopharmacological treatment admit that a large proportion of their medication ends up in other bodies. Not surprisingly, the amount of diversion is correlated with the number of prescriptions written.

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