Children and young adults who are given opioid medications for pain are more than twice as likely to become addicted if they have a mental health disorder, according to researchers at the University of Washington.
Their study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, tracked the opioid use patterns of over 62,000 adolescent and young adults ages 13 to 24 from the West, Midwest and Southwest regions of the U.S.
Researchers found that young people with mental health disorders were not only more likely to be prescribed opioids for chronic pain — they were 2.4 times more likely to become long-term opioid users. The study also found that long-term opioid use was more common among males and in communities that were poorer, had more white residents, and had fewer residents who had attended college.
“There are a number of reasons why adolescents and young adults with mental health issues are more likely to become long-term users of opioids,” said Laura Richardson, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington. “Depression and anxiety might increase pain symptoms and lead to longer treatment, and physicians may see depressed patients as being more distressed and may be willing to treat pain symptoms over a longer period of time.”
Richardson says depression and anxiety tend to run in families, and long term use of opioids often occurs in multiple generations of the same family. She said health care providers should screen for mental health disorders before prescribing painkillers to young people and prescriptions should be limited to no more than 90 days. Parents and patients should also be told to discard any unused opioids so they are not diverted or sold.
Prescription opioids constitute nearly 87 percent of prescription drug misuse among high school students. While previous studies have shown that depression and substance abuse peaks during adolescence, studies assessing the link between mental health issues and opioid use have been lacking.
The study was supported by grants from the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington and from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
A video of Dr. Richardson discussing the long-term use of opioids by adolescents and young adults can be seen here: