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The College Experience: Prescription Drug Abuse

August 01, 2014  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

Most recent graduates of Falmouth High School and Falmouth Academy are headed for college campuses around the country, an exciting and challenging experience. It’s important for you and your teen to understand the drinking and drug culture that is prevalent on college campuses and for you to have the knowledge and tools to help your son or daughter have a safe and healthy experience. 

While alcohol abuse, binge drinking, and marijuana top the list of substance abuse issues on college campuses in the U.S., the non-medical use of prescription drugs—especially stimulants, sedatives and narcotic pain relievers—is a growing problem.

During the past decade, the number of college students using prescription drugs went up dramatically; use of narcotic pain killers such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, and Percocet increased by more than 300 percent, and use of stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall increased by almost 100 percent.

According to research published in the medical journal Addictive Behaviors, 50 percent of college students have been offered a prescription drug for non-medical purposes by their sophomore year.

Taking prescription medications inappropriately has been linked to other high risk, unhealthy behaviors. Research studies document that students who take prescription drugs for non-medical reasons are at least five times more likely to develop a drug abuse problem than those who don’t. And, most college students who used the stimulant Adderall non-medically in the past year were also binge drinkers and heavy alcohol users.

Academic Doping

Adderall and other medications used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are among the most prescribed drugs in the U.S. However, many of these medications do not end up being used to treat ADHD; instead they are used as "smart or study drugs" by students who think that stimulants give them a mental edge or help them get “into the zone.”

During the past several years the number of prescriptions for Adderall has soared. More stimulant drugs in medicine cabinets and dorm-room drawers means more pills that students can buy, borrow, or steal. Various national surveys report that 8 to 30 percent of college students say they have used a stimulant drug to improve their school performance. By some estimates 15 to 20 percent of all ADHD drugs in the U.S. are diverted or shared with people who do not have a prescription. 

In one college-based survey, more than half (54%) of undergraduates who are taking stimulant medications appropriately (under the direction of their physician) admitted to being asked to sell, trade or give away their medication in the past year.

Why Are Students Using Stimulants?

Noting pressure to get good grades, intense workloads, dealing with the stress of being away from home and family, and the increasing competitive atmosphere on college campuses, students report misusing or abusing stimulant medications to:

  • Improve their grades
  • Concentrate more in class
  • Maintain focus during late-night study sessions and all nighters
  • Diet
  • Reduce stress
  • Feel good or get high
  • Ease nervousness in social situations
  • Enhance athletic performance
  • Forget about problems

However, using prescription stimulants has not been shown to improve the academic performance of students who do not have ADHD and the abuse of these drugs can be very dangerous. Although stimulants such as Adderall may improve attention and concentration, students using these drugs can be easily distracted and focus on activities not related to school work. 

Stimulant Abuse Is Dangerous

Prescription stimulants, especially Adderall, have an extremely high potential for abuse and can easily lead to dependence and serious side effects. The less serious side effects include nervousness, headaches, sleeplessness, and decreased appetite. Serious and potentially life-threatening side effects include acute exhaustion, an abnormal heart rhythm, dangerously high body temperature, the potential for heart failure or seizures, and the worsening of existing mental illness.

Prescription Pill Abuse Is Not the Norm

Although prescription drug abuse on college campuses in the U.S. is a major public health and safety concern, it’s important for you and your college-bound student to know that not everyone is doing it. Most college students know it’s not worth the risk to misuse or abuse any prescription medications.

Many students think that these medications are safe because they are prescribed by a physician. Make sure that your child knows about this issue before heading to a new environment. And, if your child has ADHD and has been prescribed a stimulant medication discuss with him or her how to safely store medications, and how to say no to classmates who want to share those medic

Recommended Resources:

The Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool: Learn about safety on your teen’s campus. A little tricky to use, but the results are interesting. 

Prescription Drug Abuse: Access to in-depth information from the National Library of Medicine. 

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