Covid has been rough on America’s mental health, with job losses, uncertainty and being cooped up at home. Covid lockdowns, social isolation and online Zoom classes while stuck at home have undoubtedly made teenage angst worse as well. An article in The New York Times discusses how teens are being overmedicated with powerful psychiatric drugs with little concern for the long term side effects. Indeed, the trend for prescribing psychiatric drugs to adolescents began to rise long before Covid.
Express Scripts, a mail-order pharmacy, recently reported that prescriptions of antidepressants for teenagers rose 38 percent from 2015 to 2019, compared with 12 percent for adults.
A nationwide study published in 2006 examined records of visits to doctors’ offices by people younger than 20 and found a sharp rise in office visits involving the prescription of antipsychotic drugs — to 1.2 million in 2002 from 200,000 in 1993.
Multiple medication use is called polypharmacy. Sometimes two drugs are prescribed because two work better than one. Sometimes additional drugs are prescribed to blunt the negative side effects of other drugs taken. Polypharmacy is by far more common in seniors but it’s now becoming more common in young adults. The 19-year old woman interviewed for The New York Times article was prescribed numerous different psychiatric drugs simultaneously during her years in high school.
A medication cascade had begun. During 2021, the year she graduated, she was prescribed seven drugs. These included one for seizures and migraines — she experienced neither, but the drug can be also used to stabilize mood — and another to dull the side effects of the other medications, although it is used mainly for schizophrenia. She felt better some days but deeply sad on others.
Psychiatric drugs are often prescribed to suicidal teens and those dealing with anxiety and depression. The problem is: they’re often doled out with little regard to efficacy.
Psychiatrists and other clinicians emphasize that psychiatric drugs, properly prescribed, can be vital in stabilizing adolescents and saving the lives of suicidal teens. But, these experts caution, such medications are too readily doled out, often as an easy alternative to therapy that families cannot afford or find, or aren’t interested in.
These drugs, generally intended for short-term use, are sometimes prescribed for years, even though they can have severe side effects — including psychotic episodes, suicidal behavior, weight gain and interference with reproductive development, according to a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.
Some of the drugs prescribed to teens were never approved to treat patients under the age of 18. Furthermore, many are combined with other drugs and the combinations have never been studied. Some psychiatrists worry kids have become guinea pigs to psychiatric polypharmacy. A study published in a pediatric journal found 4-on-10 kids prescribed drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were also prescribed at least one drug for a mental health or mood disorder.
Yet, psychiatrists admit the pills often do not work very well. Studies show only a modest improvement from antidepressants prescribed to adolescents. Adolescents are often prescribed multiple drugs because none of them seem to offer any significant benefit. In addition, something that may work for them — talk therapy — is more expensive, time consuming and not as convenient as a handful of pills.