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Teens with Mental Health Issues at Greater Substance Abuse Risk, Study Finds

Lines of pills on a flat surface

Every parent knows that it is fairly common for teenagers to mope around and act morose. However, it is also true that for some adolescents, a sour mood and glum disposition may be symptoms of something more. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), about 8.8 percent of all kids aged 12 to 17 reported suffering from a major depressive episode (MDE) in the previous year.

Physicians have long known about the link between mental illness and substance abuse disorders, especially in teens. The NSDUH found that those 12- to 17-year olds who did report an MDE were more than twice as likely to have used illicit drugs in the previous year. Similarly, almost 30 percent of the adolescents in that age group who had a substance abuse disorder also reported a co-occurring MDE.

Teens, Opioids, and Mental Health

Arguably the highest-profile drug category that is being linked to addiction and overdoses today is opioids. While much of the focus is on illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl, parents also tend to worry about prescription medications like OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, or Demerol. That is because doctors might sometimes prescribe these medications to teens who have sustained a sports injury or been hurt in an auto accident.

A new study published online in the JAMA Pediatrics medical journal examined the relationship between adolescent mental health conditions and long-term opioid therapy. Researchers from Indiana University looked at data of more than 1.2 million commercial healthcare claims involving non-cancer patients aged 14 to 18 who received opioid medications. 

The study found that the teen patients who also suffered from a preexisting mental health condition were two to three times more likely to continue their opioid therapy on a long-term basis when compared to their peers who did not have a mental health condition. In other words, the teens with mental health problems tended to keep taking prescribed opioids for a longer period of time than their counterparts without mental health issues.

Long-Term Opioid Therapy is Not Addiction

While some news sources are touting the findings as evidence of a major factor in teen opioid abuse, the study results should be viewed with some important caveats in mind. The most important is that “long-term opioid therapy” and “substance abuse or dependence” are not the same thing at all. This is reinforced by the study’s lack of correlative evidence between long-term opioid use and behaviors such as suicide or self-injury.

Also, it is essential to keep in mind that the chances of anyone becoming addicted to medically-prescribed opioids is low. For example, a 2017 study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that out of more than 568,000 patients who received opioids after a surgical procedure, only about .6 percent of them began abusing the drug.

Precautions for Teens and Opioids

Doctor examining a male teenager

Still, medical professionals feel that physicians can take steps to ensure that teenagers who are prescribed opioids do not become dependent on or addicted to the drug. Recommendations include screening adolescent patients for mental health conditions before prescribing opioids, assessing these patients’ risk profiles to see if they are more likely to experiment with drugs, and limiting the number of pills per prescription to prevent the temptation of nonmedical opioid use in the future.

Again, the takeaway for parents is not to prohibit their teen kids from taking medically-necessary opioids, but rather to be aware of the potential for any resulting opioid abuse. Furthermore, parents of adolescents who are battling mental health disorders or who have abused other drugs in the past might want to be a little more vigilant. As always, if abuse of opioids or other drugs is suspected, parents should seek help from a drug treatment or rehabilitation facility immediately.

For more information on opioid dependence or addiction, contact us today.

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