Survey: ADHD Prescriptions, Medication Use Jump Among Teens
ADHD prescriptions and medication use by adolescents is on the rise, according to a 2022 survey of high school seniors that showed a four-point increase in usage over 2021. Stimulant and non-stimulant medication use among 12th grade patients has hit an all-time high, the report says.
January 27, 2023
ADHD prescriptions and medication use among 12th grade patients hit an all-time high last year, according to a new study that found 15% of high school seniors reported stimulant or non-stimulant ADHD medication use in 2022 compared to 11% in 2021. The annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) attributed this 36% increase in ADHD medication use to “more stress” or attention issues made “more salient to their parents” during the pandemic’s lockdowns and remote learning.1
The legal, or medically supervised, use of ADHD medication was “one of the few substances with increasing prevalence during the pandemic,” according to the report, which found that lifetime use had increased for 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in 2022. The 30-day use of stimulant and non-stimulant medication by 12th graders in 2022 was the highest ever recorded by NIDA’s survey. Notably, 11.2% of 12th graders had used a stimulant for ADHD in their lifetime and 5.6% in the past 30 days, according to 2022 data collected from 31,438 students across 308 schools.
The MTF survey is conducted annually by researchers at the University of Michigan. The use of ADHD medication was first recorded in 2001 (nonmedical) and 2005 (medical). Researchers collect data on self-reported use of various drugs over 30 days, 12 months, and lifetime from hundreds of schools across the U.S. It also measures attitudes and beliefs surrounding substance use.
Examining the Rise in ADHD Medication Use
Prior to the pandemic, legal use of ADHD medication had been trending downward for patients in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. Levels were at the lowest or near-lowest ever recorded by NIDA’s survey.
“It is possible that the need for treatment of ADHD increased during the pandemic due to adolescents experiencing more stress during the pandemic,” the researchers proposed.
That theory accurately reflects the experience of many caregivers surveyed by ADDitude in early 2023; 60% of the 370 parents surveyed reported a change in their child’s ADHD medication treatment plan during the pandemic. A 2021 survey of ADDitude readers found that 22% of adults and 17% of children had started ADHD medication for the first time since pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020.
“The emotional regulation piece made it very hard to create meaningful change,” said Jessie from Michigan, who first attempted to address her child’s ADHD symptoms with “elimination diets and nutritional supplements.”
“Our hope is that medication will bring equilibrium and allow us to address root causes long term.”
MTF researchers also posit that “sheltering at home during the pandemic may have made any attention issues of adolescents more salient to their parents, who then sought out medical care for their children.”
This reflects the experience of Catherine, whose three children were diagnosed with ADHD in 2022 after a lengthy wait for evaluations.
“They all started medications, and we immediately saw improvement in their schoolwork and home life,” she said. “One child went from a 2nd grade reading level to 4th grade within months.”
Illicit Drug Use Among Adolescents
NIDA’s study found that 11% percent of 8th graders, 21.5% of 10th graders, and 32.6% of 12th graders reported illicit drug use in the past year. It concluded that “adolescents and adults in their 20s fall into the age groups at highest risk” for illicit drug use. For teens and young adults with ADHD, the use of medically supervised stimulant medication may prevent illicit drug use, according to Walt Karniski, M.D., in a recent ADDitude webinar.
“ADHD affects substance abuse in both children and adults,” Karniski said. “Children with ADHD are more likely to smoke and to begin smoking at younger ages. They’re more likely to use alcohol at younger ages and more likely to abuse alcohol as adults. Adults with ADHD are two to three times more likely to abuse drugs, but less likely to abuse drugs if they’re taking medication for their ADHD… Multiple research studies have indicated that, when children and adults are treated with stimulant medication, they are less likely to abuse drugs in the future.”
Nonmedical use of ADHD medication also rose in 2022, according to the NIDA survey, which found the use of Ritalin without a doctor’s orders rose to 1.1% for 12th graders. Unprescribed Adderall use returned to near-2020 levels following a decrease in 2021. In contrast, the nonmedical use of amphetamines by 12th graders declined, and no significant changes were found for Ritalin use by 8th and 10th graders.
“As these varied patterns of use show, the overall proportion of U.S. adolescents using any substance in their lifetime has changed over the years, and the mix of drugs they use has changed even more.”
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