Alexandria, VA—Use of psychiatric drugs is common among U.S. adults. A new study questions, however, whether patients might be taking too much for too long.

In fact, the research letter published online by JAMA Internal Medicine notes that about 1 in 6 adults in the United States, 16.7%, reported taking psychiatric drugs at least once during 2013.

The study, led by researchers from the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, used the 2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey to calculate percentages of adults using three classes of psychiatric drugs: antidepressants; anxiolytics, sedatives and hypnotics; and antipsychotics.

Most commonly prescribed were antidepressants, with 12% adults using them, followed by 8.3% for anxiolytics, sedatives, and hypnotics and 1.6% for antipsychotics.

Usage differed by race and ethnicity, according to the study, which found that 20.8% of white adults reported use of psychiatric drugs, compared with 9.7% of black adults, 8.7% of Hispanic adults, and 4.8% of Asian adults.

The overwhelming majority of the patients taking psychiatric drugs, 8 of 10, reported long-term use, defined as three or more prescriptions filled in 2013 or a prescription started in 2011 or earlier.

Age also was a factor. The research letter pointed out that, while 25.1% of adults aged 60 to 85 years reported use of psychiatric drugs, only 9.0% of adults 18 to 39 years old did so. Women were more likely to report using psychiatric drugs than men, with an odds ratio of 2.0, according to the results.

Since prescriptions were self-reported, the study authors caution that the use of psychiatric drugs could be underestimated.

“Among adults reporting taking psychiatric drugs, more than 8 of 10 reported long-term use. Prescribing information for the leading antidepressants includes limited information about appropriate duration of treatment. However, benzodiazepines have warnings about drug dependence, tolerance, withdrawal, and rebound symptoms. In a previous study, we found most patients were long-term users of the hypnotic zolpidem tartrate despite recommendations for short-term use, and many were combining it with other central nervous system depressants despite warnings,” researchers note, adding, “Safe use of psychiatric drugs could be improved by increasing emphasis on prescribing these agents at the lowest effective dose and systematically reassessing the need for continued use.”

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