Are Children Overprescribed Psychiatric Medications?

Two packs of red and white pills lie on the ground. A toy rabbit sits out of focus.The number of children taking psychiatric medications has been rising over the last few decades. In 2014, the National Center for Health Statistics estimated 1 in 13 U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 17 takes medication. Many people believed the report was clear evidence that children are overmedicated. Yet a new study challenges that argument.

According to a study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, children are not overprescribed psychiatric drugs. Instead, the research suggests children who need psychiatric drugs might not be getting them.

Psychiatric Drug Use in Children

Some people are concerned about the overuse of psychiatric drugs, particularly stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall. They often cite the increase in drug use as evidence of a problem. Others argue it is possible that more children are developing psychiatric conditions. The increase in drug use could be proportional to the new need.

To analyze the issue, researchers investigated the number of children with a mental health diagnosis. Then they compared that figure to the number of children who are prescribed psychiatric drugs.

Researchers gathered data on 6,351,482 people aged 3-24 years from the IMS LifeLink LRx National Longitudinal Prescription Database. Next, they analyzed prescription rates of three drug classes: antidepressants, stimulants, and antipsychotics. The annual percentage of young people who took drugs in any of the three classes was as follows:

  • Ages 3-5 years: 0.8%
  • Ages 6-12 years: 5.4%
  • Ages 13-18 years: 7.7%
  • Ages 19-24 years: 6.0%

Next, researchers compared the known prevalence rates of various psychiatric conditions to the rate at which drugs for these conditions were prescribed. They found that prescription rates are lower than diagnosis rates. For example, about 1 in 8 teens experiences depression each year, but less than 1 in 30 were prescribed antidepressants. About 1 in 12 children have symptoms of ADHD each year, though only 1 in 20 received a stimulant prescription during the study year.

Not all children who have a psychiatric diagnosis need medication. However, the very low rates of medication use suggest children who need medication might not be receiving it.


  1. Post by former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Are children overmedicated? (2014, June 06). NIMH. Retrieved from
  2. Sultan, R. S., Correll, C. U., Schoenbaum, M., King, M., Walkup, J. T., & Olfson, M. (2018). National patterns of commonly prescribed psychotropic medications to young people. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology. doi:10.1089/cap.2017.0077

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  • Sebastian

    June 26th, 2018 at 10:35 AM

    Students all over the country are using ADHD medications as a way to make their studies easier. Whether or not perceive these stimulants as actually helping them, abuse of these drugs is dangerous to say the least. Whether they know it or not, a significant amount of people who abuse these drugs do so under a false pretense of them being safe because of the fact that these drugs are prescribed by a doctor. The opposite couldn’t be truer. The consequences of Ritalin abuse for example can lead to addiction and even withdrawal. I actually encountered an article recently detailing some of the lesser-known effects of Ritalin abuse.

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