Teens Prescribed Anti-Anxiety, Sleep Meds More Likely to Abuse Drugs Illegally


One-fifth of U.S. teens are affected, at some point in their lives, by a mental disorder, according to a National Institute of Mental Health survey. Over the past decade, the rate at which health care providers prescribe controlled substances, including anxiolytic (anti-stress) and sleep medications, for adolescent patients has increased. Along with this uptick in prescriptions has come a surge in the off-prescription use of these drugs by teens. Illicit use of prescription medications, with the exception of marijuana, has outstripped the use of all illegal drugs.

A 2014 study found that teens who were prescribed anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax and Valium, or prescription sleep aids such as Ambien and Lunesta, were 12 times more likely to abuse these medications than their peers who have never received a prescription. The researchers surveyed more than 2,700 middle and high school students in the Detroit area. Participants completed two surveys a year over a three-year period. At the beginning of the study, the average age of participants was 14 with an equal number of boys and girls. The authors note that further studies would be needed to discover if similar results would be found nationwide.

The survey revealed that the longer a patient had a valid prescription, the greater the chance the medication would be used illegally. White females were the most likely to abuse these drugs. White students were two-times as likely as African Americans to abuse medications prescribed to someone else. It isn’t uncommon for someone with a valid prescription to give their medications to friends and family members.

Participants who held a valid prescription for an anti-anxiety or sleep medication during the three years of the study were far more like to misuse their medications for the euphoric effect as opposed to using the drugs to relive symptoms of anxiety or insomnia. The study found that experience with these classes of medication increased the likelihood of misuse in the future. “These drugs produce highly attractive sensations,” says study author Carol J. Boyd, “and adolescents may start seeking the drugs after their prescriptions run out.”

Study authors say their findings point to the need for pre-prescribing counseling. Health care providers should inform teens and their parents of the risks of abusing anti-anxiety and sleep medications. Teens also need to be aware of the dangers of sharing their prescriptions with others. To further reduce the incidents of drug misuse, study authors suggest that prescribers complete a substance abuse assessment before writing a prescription, and limiting the number of refills allowed.