1 in 6 Americans Takes a Psychiatric Drug

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One in six U.S. adults reported taking a psychiatric drug, such as an antidepressant or a sedative, in 2013, a new study found.

The new data comes from an analysis of the 2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS), which gathered information on the cost and use of health care in the United States.

An earlier government report, from 2011, found that just over one in 10 adults reported taking prescription drugs for "problems with emotions, nerves or mental health," the authors wrote in a research letter published today (Dec. 12) in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. [9 DIY Ways to Improve Your Mental Health]

But that report, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, didn't "provide information on which specific medications were more commonly used " or on how long they were used, said authors of the new study, Thomas Moore, a senior scientist at the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, and Dr. Donald Mattison, the chief medical officer at the Canadian consulting company Risk Sciences International.

Moore and Mattison found that nearly 17 percent of adults in the U.S. reported filling at least one prescription for a psychiatric drug in 2013.

Antidepressants were the most common type of psychiatric drug in the survey, with 12 percent of adults reporting that they filled prescriptions for these drugs, the study said. In addition, 8.3 percent of adults were prescribed drugs from a group that included sedatives, hypnotics and anti-anxiety drugs, and 1.6 percent of adults were given antipsychotics, the researchers found.

Demographic differences

Psychiatric drug use differed among adults of different ages, sex and race, the researchers found. For example, nearly 21 percent of white adults reported taking a psychiatric drug, compared with less than 9 percent of Hispanic adults, according to the report.

Older adults also reported a higher rate of psychiatric drug use. One-quarter of adults ages 60 to 85 reported taking at least one of these drugs, compared with less than 10 percent of adults ages 18 to 39, the researchers found.

In addition, nearly twice as many women as men reported taking psychiatric drugs: 21 percent compared with 12 percent, according to the report. [7 Ways Depression Differs in Men and Women]

Two antidepressants topped the list for the most commonly used psychiatric drugs: sertraline hydrochloride, which goes by the brand name Zoloft, and citalopram hydrobromide, or Celexa.

Alprazolam, or Xanax, was the most common drug from the sedative, hypnotic and anti-anxiety category, the study said. This medication was the third most common psychiatric drug overall, following Zoloft and Celexa, according to the report.

Other leading drugs included Ambien, which is a hypnotic sleeping pill, and the antidepressants Prozac and Desyrel, the report said.

The researchers noted that because the survey data included information on only a single year, it was difficult to determine how long people had been prescribed different psychiatric drugs. However, more than eight in 10 adults who were taking psychiatric drugs reported long-term use, the researchers wrote.

For antidepressants, there is limited information available about how long an individual should stay on the drug, Moore and Mattison wrote. For certain drugs in the sedative, hypnotic and anxiolytic category, however, people can become dependent, the researchers noted.

To improve the safety of psychiatric drugs, Moore and Mattison suggested increasing the emphasis on prescribing these medications at the lowest effective dose and continually re-assessing the need to keep individuals on the drugs. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.