Are teens “undermedicated” for mental health disorders?

iStock_000019287811XSmallI came across an interesting study published by researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health in last month’s issue of JAMA Pediatrics. In this study, slightly over 10,000 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 representative of the teen population in the U.S. were interviewed as part of a larger study on comorbidity, and one line of questioning involved treatment for mental health conditions. Here are the results…

Among youth with any DSM-IV mental disorder, 14.2% reported that they had been treated with a psychotropic medication in the past 12 months. Strong associations emerged between specific disorders and classes of medications with evidence for efficacy. Antidepressants were most frequently used among those with primary mood disorders (14.1%); stimulant use was most common among those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (20.4%); and antipsychotic use was infrequent and mostly seen among those with serious developmental disorders. Less than 2.5% of adolescents without a 12-month mental disorder had been prescribed psychotropic medications, and most had evidence of psychological distress or impairment reflected in a previous mental disorder, subthreshold condition, or developmental disorder. Appropriate medication use was significantly more frequent among those in treatment in the mental health specialty sector than general medicine or other settings.

It’s very easy to look at data from large population studies such as this one and draw sweeping conclusions, but I’ll nevertheless share a few from my observations, experience and involvement in presenting some earlier studies looking at prevalence of stimulant use in kids and teens…

  • There is very little evidence in this study to suggest that large numbers of teens are getting psychiatric medications that they don’t need.
  • Teens and their families have an extraordinarily difficult time accessing good mental health care. In many communities around the country, care is inaccessible because of a lack of qualified professionals. Parents with private insurance have difficulty finding clinicians willing to work with their insurance plans, or avoid seeking care because of high deductibles. Much of the care that is available simply isn’t very good.
  • Medication isn’t necessarily a panacea for many of the mental health conditions that teens experience. As we’ve referenced earlier, antidepressants aren’t all that effective for treating kids with depression. We were involved with a study seven years ago that found kids diagnosed with ADHD who had been prescribed medication received medication less than 40% of the time over the course of a year.
  • Lots of teens are suffering from mental health disorders with the potential to significantly impact their development educationally, socially, and spiritually. Many struggle on a daily basis from disabilities that they don’t even know they have. Kids and families have large, unmet needs in communities of all economic and ethnic backgrounds.

Bottom line…Teens with mental illnesses and their families represent an identified people group worthy of attention when churches consider unmet needs to target for missional outreach.


ID-10072756Key Ministry has put together a resource page for pastors, church staff, volunteers and parents with interest in the subject of depression and teens. Available on the resource page are…

  • Links to all the posts from our recent blog series on depression
  • Links to other outstanding blog posts on the topic from leaders in the disability ministry community
  • Links to educational resources on the web, including excellent resources from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), a parent medication guide, and excellent information from Mental Health Grace Alliance.

Photos courtesy of

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
This entry was posted in ADHD, Advocacy, Controversies, Depression, Hidden Disabilities, Mental Health and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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