More than one in five American adults took medications for psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression in 2010, according to new research by Medco Health Solutions, Inc. Titled America's State of Mind, the report released this November by the pharmacy benefit manager was based on its prescription medication database of 2.5 million insured Americans. The data analyzed drug trends during the past decade, starting in 2001.

The analysis revealed that 20 percent of all adults took at least one drug to treat a psychiatric condition, while among women that number rose to 25 percent—or one in four—reporting having taken such drugs.

The numbers represent a 22 percent increase since 2001 of the use of drugs specifically targeting mental disorders. Women over 45 years old were most frequently prescribed the medications, with 11 percent of them between 45 to 65 years old taking an anxiety drug.

ADHD Patients Increasingly Using Benzos

Among adults ages 20 to 44, attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) medication prescriptions tripled, and their use of anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax, Valium and Ativan increased by 30 percent. The findings showed that ADHD medication use by women was 2.5 times higher in 2010 than ten years earlier.

Decline in Using Antidepressants

While anti-psychotic medication use for severe mental conditions among children under 10 increased during the ten-year period, the use of antidepressants among 19 year-olds and under sharply declined. That decrease is attributed to the 2004 Food and Drug Administration's notification associating the use of such medications with increased suicidal thoughts among young users. The researchers noted that the ADHD drugs were prescribed for boys more frequently than for girls.

Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan had the lowest rates of people using psychotropic drugs, with fewer than 15 percent of those states' residents taking the medications. Conversely, roughly 23 percent of individuals in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Alabama, are taking at least one mental disorder medication; diabetes, a chronic disease linked to increased rates of depression and anxiety, is prevalent in those states.

Benefits of Psychiatry and Medication

Opinions differ on the causes of the surge in behavioral and psychiatric medication use. Experts are unsure whether more people are seeking help or whether such conditions are being better diagnosed. Other events during the past decade, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, two ongoing overseas wars, and a stubborn recession, may also explain some of the driving forces behind the uptick in prescription medication use for mental disorders.

Anxiety disorders encompass conditions marked by excessive, persistent and unwarranted fears and worries. They include generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. Children and adults can suffer from the condition, which can develop as a result of environmental and genetic factors.

Treatment often involves Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a form of counseling that addresses the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are also often prescribed to influence brain chemical interactions associated with mood disorders. Benzodiazepines are sometimes recommended as well for anxiety treatment, though they are addictive and potentially harmful if stopped suddenly.

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Date of original publication:
Updated on: April 13, 2017

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