Teens on ADHD meds are twice as likely to be bullied

"This study doesn't say 'don't give your child medication,'" says Quyen Epstein-Ngo. "It suggests that it's really important to talk to your children about who they tell." (Credit: McLevn/Flickr)

Children who take Ritalin or other medications for ADHD are twice as likely to be physically or emotionally bullied by their peers as those who don’t have ADHD, a new study shows.

At even higher risk are middle and high school students who sell or share medications—they are four-and-a-half times likely to be victimized.

The findings hold true for both boys and girls.

Previous studies have shown that children with ADHD have a harder time making and keeping friends and are bullied and victimized more. The new study, published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, is believed to be the first known to look at how stimulant medications affect relationships with peers.

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“Many youth with ADHD are prescribed stimulant medications to treat their ADHD and we know that these medications are the most frequently shared or sold among adolescents,” says Quyen Epstein-Ngo, research assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

For the study, researchers surveyed nearly 5,000 middle and high school students over four years. About 15 percent were diagnosed with ADHD and roughly 4 percent were prescribed stimulants within the past 12 months.

Of those who took ADHD meds, 20 percent reported being approached to sell or share them, and about half of them did. When looking at the overall figures, relatively few students were asked to divert their medications or did. However, the numbers don’t tell the entire story, Epstein-Ngo says.

“Having a diagnosis of ADHD has lifelong consequences. These youth aren’t living in isolation. As they transition into adulthood, the social effects of their ADHD diagnosis will impact a broad range of people with whom they come into contact.”

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From 2003 to 2011, there was a 42 percent increase in ADHD cases diagnosed in the United States, and between 2007 and 2011, there was a 27 percent increase in stimulant-treated ADHD.

The findings shouldn’t scare parents away from considering a stimulant medication. Rather, the study reinforces why parents must talk to kids about never sharing their medications.

“For some children stimulant medications are immensely helpful in getting through school,” Epstein-Ngo says. “This study doesn’t say ‘don’t give your child medication.’ It suggests that it’s really important to talk to your children about who they tell.”

It’s unclear why kids with prescriptions for stimulant medications are more at risk for bullying and victimization, but Epstein-Ngo says it’s probably due to several factors.

“Is it a function of the fact that they are in riskier situations, or are they being coerced and forced to give up their medications? Probably a little bit of both.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded the work.

Source: University of Michigan