Study Shows Taking Mental Health Medication Is Incredibly Common

Can we stop stigmatizing mental illness now?
Many people actually take medication for mental health issues.
Ralf Hiemisch via Getty Images
Many people actually take medication for mental health issues.

If you take medication for a mental health issue, you’re in good company.

Approximately one in six Americans has taken a prescribed psychiatric drug such as antidepressants at least once, according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Researchers from the Institute of Safe Medication Practices analyzed public government data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, which measures details related to the use of health care and health insurance coverage. They found 16.7 percent of 242 million U.S. adults reported filling one or more psychiatric drug prescriptions in 2013, the most recent year of collected information.

The authors discovered 12 percent of people reported taking antidepressants. Just over 8 percent took anxiety drugs, sedatives or sleeping pills and 1.6 percent took antipsychotic medication, which is most commonly used for conditions like schizophrenia.

They also broke the data down by groups, revealing significant differences by race and ethnicity.

Large differences were found in race [and] ethnicity, with 20.8 percent of white adults reporting use versus 8.7 percent of Hispanic adults,” the authors wrote, also stating that about 9 percent of African-American adults reported taking at least one psychiatric medication.

Although the researchers didn’t investigate why this disparity exists, previous research shows minorities often receive inferior mental health treatment compared with white individuals. This is often due to a variety of barriers, including stigma and a lack of diverse health care providers.

The study only looked at the number of psychiatric prescriptions, not why people were taking them. The study authors theorized that the number of people using these medications may even be underestimated, because data was limited to one year of a self-reported survey. It’s also worth noting that filling a prescription doesn’t necessarily mean it was used.

On the one hand, this data is heartening for mental health advocates who wish to reduce negative stereotypes: An estimated one in five American adults will experience a mental health issue in a given year, yet many of them feel like others aren’t compassionate or understanding about their conditions. Research shows this stigma can prevent individuals from seeking treatment, and the medication data demonstrates that mental illnesses are clearly prevalent issues that deserve to be addressed with the same sensitivity as any other health problem.

But some medical professionals are concerned with the prevalence of prescription drug use, particularly the extent of long-term prescriptions. Approximately 84 percent of people who reported taking psychiatric pills in the study also reported filling three or more prescriptions total in 2013 or indicated that they had been taking medication for two years or longer.

Psychiatric drugs like Valium or Xanax, which are prescribed to help with anxiety issues, were among those being used long-term. This can be a huge problem, according to lead study author Thomas Moore, because those medications can be habit-forming.

Scientists have previously suggested that physicians may be overprescribing these drugs, which could be dangerous. The death rates from anxiety drug overdoses have quadrupled in the U.S. over the past two decades, according to research published in February.

The main takeaway? It’s critical to follow a behavioral health treatment plan outlined by a clinician, which can include medication and talk therapy. And while taking medication can be an essential part of a treatment program ― and a common one, at that ― it’s important to be mindful of the potential for dependency and abuse.

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