Are Anti-Anxiety Medications Creating Teen Drug Abusers?

Doctors may be accidentally creating a new generation of recreational drug users, a new study suggests.

Among teenagers, those prescribed anti-anxiety or sleep medications are 12 times more likely to illegally abuse them later, says the University of Michigan study.

“I recognize the importance of these medications in treating anxiety and sleep problems,” says Carol Boyd, first author and professor of nursing. “However, the number of adolescents prescribed these medications and the number misusing them is disturbing for several reasons.”

Almost 9 percent of the 2,745 adolescents in the study had been given a prescription for anxiety or sleep medications during their lifetime. More than 3 percent of them received at least one prescription during the three-year study period.

Addictive or Fatal

Examples of anti-anxiety medications include Klonopin, Xanax, and Ativan. Sleep medications include Ambien, Restoril, and Lunesta.

These drugs are controlled substances partly because of the potential for abuse. It is a felony to share them.

According to Boyd, anxiety and sleep medications can be addictive or even fatal when mixed with narcotics or alcohol.

“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.”

Three Year Study

Researchers gathered students from five Detroit-area schools and grouped them into three categories.

The categories were 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 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 more likely to abuse the medications.

Researchers write that this is the first longitudinal study to establish whether teens’ recent medical use of anxiety or sleep medications is associated with later on taking somebody else’s prescription medication illegally, whether for self-treatment or recreational use.

”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,” said Boyd.

Boyd had intended to write a paper about teens abusing their own prescriptions, but changed course when the results became clear.

“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?”

A Prospective Study of Adolescents’ Nonmedical Use of Anxiolytic and Sleep Medication.
Boyd, Carol J.; Austic, Elizabeth; Epstein-Ngo, Quyen; Veliz, Philip T.; McCabe, Sean Esteban
Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, Nov 24 , 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/adb0000026

Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr