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How Many Young People Take Meds Long-Term?

Rubber Stamp question markOnce you start following the debate about young people and psychotropic drugs, you see the word “overmedicated” bandied around a lot.

I’ve argued before that deeming kids overmedicated without saying what constitutes properly medicated doesn’t make a lot of sense. Still, at least we have some idea of approximately what percentage of kids in the United States – and, to a lesser extent, in other countries – take various kinds of psychiatric meds. What we don’t know is how long the kids continue to take these medications.

This is a frustrating knowledge gap if, like me, you’re interested in the long-term “psychosocial” effects of taking meds – that is, how the experience shapes kids’ outlooks and identities.

A couple of big government surveys do inquire how long people have been taking medication, but so far as I can tell, statisticians haven’t waded through the larger datasets to analyze this particular metric.

I was very excited, then, back in October, when a CDC report came out about antidepressant use in people over age 12. The headline news on the report was that 11 percent of Americans take antidepressants, with middle-aged women among the heaviest users.

I was interested in the report, though, because it contained a rare metric: The length of time people had been taking the medications. The brief showed that more than 60 percent had been taking them for two years or longer and that about 14 percent had been taking them longer than 10 years.

The fact that the CDC report actually measured how long people had been taking antidepressants was huge. Unfortunately, the report didn’t include a breakdown by age, so I couldn’t see what percentage of teens or 20-somethings had been taking the medications for extended periods of time, as opposed to just a few months.

I had been looking for this information for the book I wrote on the topic and, more recently, for a magazine piece. So I called the CDC to see if they could provide the information. They kindly put me in touch with the study’s author, who crunched the numbers as best she could.

I wanted to know what percentage of young people had been taking antidepressants for 10 years or more. Unfortunately, the report’s author told me, the overall sample size for each age group was too small to be able to say – only a couple of thousand total. And among people ages 12 to 34,  4 to 6 percent took antidepressants at all, with only a fraction of those taking them for an extended period of time.

However, the author did have a big enough sample to work with to do a breakdown of what percentage of young people had been taking antidepressants for two years or more. The figure ranged from 35 percent in 12 to 17-year-olds, to 37 percent in 18 to 24-year-olds, to 39 percent in 25 to 34-year-olds.

The take-home point: Even though self-reports are not perfect, more studies need to inquire how long people have been taking medications, and they need to use larger sample sizes. Not particularly heartening or useful information for the average person, but that’s the reality.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Leo Reynolds

How Many Young People Take Meds Long-Term?

Kaitlin Bell Barnett

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APA Reference
Bell Barnett, K. (2011). How Many Young People Take Meds Long-Term?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Dec 2011
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