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More Than 7 Percent of Kids on Behavioral Meds

A new survey finds 7.5 percent of U.S. kids are on some kind of medication for emotional or behavioral trouble.
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A new study finds 7.5 percent of U.S. kids take medication for behavioral or emotional difficulties.Chris Langer / Chris Langer for

A new survey finds that 7.5 percent of children aged 6–17 are taking some sort of prescription medicine for emotional or behavioral difficulties.

It’s a first look at the problem, and supports evidence that more and more U.S. kids are getting drugs for conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The good news is that more than half of their parents said the medication helped their children “a lot." The troubling news is that low-income kids were more likely to be given such drugs.

LaJeana Howie and colleagues at the National Center for Health Statistics used data from interviews of the parents of 17,000 children in 2011-2012 for the study.

“This definitely is a first look,” Howie told NBC News. “We just wanted to get a snapshot to see what the use was.”

The survey did not ask parents which drugs, precisely, the children had been prescribed and it did not ask for which specific condition. But Howie said more than 80 percent of the parents also said their children had at some point been diagnosed with ADHD.

More children insured by Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program used prescribed medication for emotional or behavioral difficulties than children with private health insurance or no health insurance, Howie’s team reported.

And, unsurprisingly, more boys than girls were being medicated — 9.7 percent compared to 5.2 percent of girls.

“Over the past two decades, the use of medication to treat mental health problems has increased substantially among all school-aged children and in most subgroups of children,” Howie’s team reported. But because this survey was done in a new way, it’s not possible to compare results to past years.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, 5 percent of U.S. children have ADHD. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to studies showing that 11 percent and more of kids have been diagnosed with ADHD, up from 7.8 percent in 2003. Other reports show diagnoses have jumped 24 percent in a decade.