In a new study, Laura Richardson, MD of Seattle Children’s Research Institute and co-investigators found that young adults ages 13 to 24 with mental health disorders were more likely to be prescribed opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin for chronic pain and also more than twice as likely to become long-term opioid users than those who didn’t have a mental health disorder. The study, “Mental Health Disorders and Long-term Opioid Use Among Adolescents and Young Adults With Chronic Pain,” appears in the June 2012 issue of  Journal of Adolescent Health, and underscores the increase in the use and abuse of long-term opioid painkillers among teens in the U.S.

In this video, Dr. Richardson discusses the findings of the study and what they tell us about this trend:

Tips for Parents, Patients and Medical Providers

While there may be a role for opioids in treating some patients, Dr. Richardson offers the following tips for parents, patients and medical professionals aimed to help reduce risk of long-term opioid use:

  • Providers should have frank conversations with families about the long-term use of opioids and the risks involved.
  • Providers should screen for mental health disorders before starting medications, and should consider referring patients with depression or anxiety for counseling or other mental health treatment.
  • Parents and patients should ask how long the provider anticipates that the patient will be treated with opioids.  For most conditions, such as post-surgical pain or dental procedures, the treatment should be no longer than two weeks.
  • Parents who are concerned that their adolescents might have depression or anxiety should advocate for them to make sure they get the help and treatment they need.
  • Parents and patients should appropriately discard any unused opioid prescriptions, and take advantage of “take back your drugs” days and drop sites at local police stations and pharmacies.


  • In 2008, drug overdoses in the United States caused 36,450 deaths (all ages). Opioids were involved in 14,800 deaths (73.8%) of the 20,044 prescription drug overdose deaths. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • For deaths (all ages) in the United States involving opioids in 2008, the rate among non-Hispanic whites and American Indians/Alaska Natives was three times higher than the rates in blacks and Hispanic whites. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • From 1991 to 2009, prescriptions for opioid analgesics in the United States increased nearly threefold, to over 200 million. Approximately,12 percent of opioids prescribed were to young people aged 10-29. Source: National Institute of Drug Abuse

Additional Resources

  • The CDC has a variety of reports on prescription painkiller abuse in the United States.
  • The National Survey on Drug Use and Health includes information on usage rates of illicit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco products in the United States.
  • A recap of the  findings of Dr. Richardson’s study

If you’d like to arrange an interview with Dr. Laura Richardson, please contact Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or