Teenagers who are prescribed anti-anxiety or sleep medications are 12 times more likely to illegally abuse them later.
The findings suggest that the medical community may be inadvertently creating a new generation of illegal, recreational drug users, experts warn.
Nearly 9 percent of the 2,745 adolescents in the study had received a prescription for anxiety or sleep medications during their lifetime, and more than 3 percent received at least one prescription during the three-year study period.
“I recognize the importance of these medications in treating anxiety and sleep problems,” says lead author Carol Boyd, professor of nursing at the University of Michigan. “However, the number of adolescents prescribed these medications, and the number misusing them, is disturbing for several reasons.”
Anxiety and sleep medications can be addictive or even fatal when mixed with narcotics or alcohol, says Boyd.
“What happened to [actor] Heath Ledger could happen to any teen who is misusing these medications, particularly if the teen uses alcohol in combination with these drugs.”
Examples of anti-anxiety medications include Klonopin, Xanax, and Ativan. Sleep medications include Ambien, Restoril, and Lunesta. The drugs are controlled substances partly because of the potential for abuse. It’s a felony to share them.
Published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, the study included students from five Detroit-area schools, grouped into three categories: those never prescribed anxiety or sleep medications, those prescribed those medications within the three-year study period, and those previously prescribed those medications but not during the study period.
Adolescents prescribed anxiety medications during their lifetime, but not during the study, were found to be 12 times more likely to use someone else’s anxiety medication than participants who had never been prescribed such drugs.
Teenagers prescribed anxiety or sleep medications during the study period were 10 times more likely to abuse them within two years—to get high or to experiment—than teens without prescriptions.
White students were twice as likely as black students to use others’ medications, and females older than 15 and teens who had prescriptions for longer periods of time were also more likely to abuse the medications.
Researchers say this is the first longitudinal study to determine whether teens’ recent medical use of anxiety or sleep medications is associated with later taking somebody else’s prescription medication illegally, either for self-treatment or recreational use.
Boyd says she intended to write a paper about teens abusing their own prescriptions, but changed course when the results became clear: “I looked at these numbers and said, ‘There’s a story here.’ It just catches you off guard that so many adolescents are being prescribed these medications.
“Why is it that our youth are anxious and sleepless? Is it because they are under stress, consuming too much caffeine, or seeking an altered state?”
Better education for parents and adolescents prescribed these medications is needed, the researchers say, as is better refill monitoring and making it standard practice to give teens a substance use assessment before writing prescriptions.