Teens Abusing Prescription Drugs May Not Just Want to Get High, Research Suggests

Teen girl holding a selection of pills

Many teens who use abuse prescription drugs are not trying to get high, but are using them to help them deal with an underlying problem such as anxiety, a newly published survey suggests.

“We think of teens as using drugs to party and to experiment,” says study co-author Barbara Delaney. “But because prescription drugs are designed to help with physical or emotional conditions, many teenagers are using them to help them with a specific problem, such as lessening anxiety, staying awake to study, or losing weight.”

The findings suggest the need for parents to understand physical or emotional problems their teen may be facing, which need to be addressed. “It’s not enough to simply tell them not to use drugs,” says Delaney, former Director of Research at the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. “Parents need to understand what’s going on in their teens’ minds—what kind of stresses they feel.”

The survey included responses from more than 1,000 13- to 18-year-olds from around the country who were recruited in shopping malls. They completed a web-based questionnaire on their use of substances including alcohol, tobacco, and both legal and illegal drugs. They were also asked whether they struggled with anxiety, felt a desire to be popular, sought out exciting activities, and what level of risk they associated with prescription drugs.

The researchers found one factor that affected teens’ use of prescription drugs was the need to feel popular. “Wanting to fit in with your peers is connected to anxiety,” Delaney said. The use of other restricted substances, such as alcohol, also increased the risk of prescription drug abuse.

“Adults spotting teens with very high levels of anxiety and at least moderate use of other restricted substances should realize that these are students with a high likelihood of prescription drug abuse,” the authors wrote in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

The researchers found 20 percent of teens reported they had a friend that abused prescription drugs. They identified prescription drugs as a new tier of drug abuse after the traditional “starter drugs” such as beer/wine, cigarettes, liquor, and marijuana.

Teens said they got prescription drugs primarily through friends, who in turn got them from their home medicine cabinets. “Parents need to safeguard medicines in their home, and get rid of medicines that are out of date,” Delaney said. The researchers noted that because parents may not be aware of the level of risk or that their teenagers may be abusing prescription drugs, they may leave prescription drugs in open medicine cabinets, offering easy access.

The survey found teens felt that prescription drugs were less risky to use than street drugs. “Previous research has found a teen’s decision about whether to try a drug is strongly associated with their perception of the drug’s risk,” she noted. “They think, ‘How risky can it be if these drugs are prescribed by doctors?’” Public education campaigns need to better communicate the risks associated with prescription drug abuse, the researchers conclude.

The study’s co-authors were Richard Netemeyer of the University of Virginia, Scot Burton of the University of Arkansas and Gina Hijjawi of American Institutes for Research.

10 Responses

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    November 2, 2015 at 1:55 AM


    You should consider the harm reduction potential of marijuana use for coping with anxiety without having to turn to harder drugs! If you were to open up to him about marijuana, I bet he would be much more forthcoming with you. He will never keep his promises if he thinks they are ridiculous. If he thinks they are reasonable, i.e. ‘pot but not coke, bc coke is extremely dangerous’, then he will be much more likely to listen to your concerns. This would foster an open, trusting, honest relationship. What if he thinks, ‘well, I already broke my promises, might as well snort some coke’? I hope you can learn to be accepting of your son. I am SURE he wants you to be, and that he doesn’t want to lie to you!

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    James Nardini

    October 17, 2015 at 2:30 PM

    I have read the article and I both accept and recognize that we exposed our child to our own anxieties too often. Our child is 18 and had become dependent upon Xanax in particular and also marijuana he says to reduce his anxiety. He had also used cocaine and extasy pretty regularly.

    He has completed a 30-day resident treatment program and after being home for 6 days has already slipped with marijuana several times, has lied to his friends that “it is ok to smoke pot” and manipulated us that he was not going to use, even pot. Knowing that anxiety is is his biggest trigger, accepting our part in his anxiety…. What do we do now?

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    Lance Maness

    October 14, 2015 at 1:42 PM

    It goes deeper than teens taking drugs for anxiety. You have to look at why they are anxious to begin with. 1/3 of the US Population is born with low neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically the mesolimbic or reward center of the brain. So these people, teens included seek substance to make themselves feel better or feel normal. They seek to boost their dopamine levels, unfortunately in a destructive manner. Think of ADHD. Everytime you change focus you get a boost of dopamine. They are not hyperactive, they are hyperly seeking dopamine. So we give them Ritalin or Adderall. This calms the brain down for people labeled as ADHD. But these drugs have serious side effect. We have an all natural product that does the same thing. Synaptamine is a dopamine agonist and people are seeing tremendous results without the side effects of narcotics.

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    Skip Sviokla MD ABAM

    October 7, 2015 at 1:37 PM

    I’d be interested to hear Drs Khantzian and Albanese’s comments on this article.
    Skip Sviokla MD ABAM
    Author “From Harvard to Hell…and Back”

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