Prescription Drug Abuse on College Campuses
Substance abuse was viewed, for decades, as a “street” problem, mostly confined to the inner cities. In recent years, however, we are seeing that drugs of abuse aren’t just on the street—they are in our college student’s medicine cabinets. Prescription medications have legitimate medical purposes and are prescribed to people who are ill or in pain and need them. When they are taken in larger quantities than prescribed, or when they fall into the wrong hands, prescription drug abuse can occur.
Prescription drug abuse statistics
Prescription drug abuse is particularly high in the United States. In fact, Americans consume 75% of all prescription drugs, but only make up 5% of the world population. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 52 million Americans report having used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes at some point in their life. The majority of prescription drugs abused are opiate painkillers, followed by depressants and stimulants. More than half of prescription drug abusers obtain drugs from a friend or relative.
What is prescription drug abuse?
Prescription drug abuse can occur in three primary ways:
- Someone is legitimately prescribed a medication, but takes it in larger quantities or more frequently than indicated by their prescriber. In some cases, a patient will go to multiple prescribers and pharmacies in order to obtain more prescription drugs, a practice known as “doctor shopping.”
- A patient lies to a doctor about his or her symptoms, or exaggerates their severity, in order to obtain prescription drugs. In many cases, individuals will study the symptoms of particular conditions online in order to know what to say in order to be prescribed the medication they seek.
- An individual takes medications that are prescribed to someone else, whether the individual gave the medication to the person, it was stolen, or it was obtained illicitly. This can be as innocent as a parent giving a migraine medication they are prescribed to their child or as cunning as an addict robbing the medicine cabinet of a stranger at an open house event.
Most prescription medications can be purchased on the street illicitly as well. In some cases, individuals are “cut off” by their doctors who suspect them of abusing prescriptions and refuse to further prescribe to them. When this occurs, patients may turn to the street to purchase the drugs they were once prescribed licitly, or chemically similar illicit drugs. For example, morphine and other prescription painkillers are nearly identical in chemical structure and effects to heroin. However, heroin can be purchased at a fraction of the cost of prescription drugs.
It is also possible to purchase medications online from other countries without a prescription. Some prescription drug abusers never have to leave their home to obtain their drugs. This perpetuates the psychosocial consequences of prescription drug abuse.
Prescription drug abuse facts
Opioid painkillers make up the vast majority of prescription drug abuse in the US, with an estimated 5.1 million users in 2010. In October of 2017, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency. More than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016, more than died in the entire course of the Vietnam War. Fetanyl, an extremely potent prescription opioid, accounted for more than 20,000 of those deaths, surpassing heroin for the first time. Fetanyl has been found mixed into street drugs like heroin and cocaine as well.
Prescription drug abuse has dramatically increased in college students in the past 10 years
Prescription drug abuse is rampant on college campuses across the United States. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that, “On an average day, 559 full-time college students start the non-medical use of prescription pain relievers, and 415 full-time college students use licit or illicit stimulants non-medically.” This means that thousands of students around the country are abusing prescription medications for a variety of reasons:
- Prescription medications are a big part of the college party scene. Fraternity, sorority, and dorm parties frequently offer up Adderal, Xanax, and prescription opiates alongside alcohol, marijuana, and other common “party drugs.” Frequently, in these settings, prescription drugs are mixed with alcohol and/or illicit drugs, increasing the likelihood of overdose and injury. Prescription abuse in these environments can also increase the risk of sexual assault, physical altercations, and other injuries.
- Study drugs. Stimulants, in particular, are used by college students in order to enhance their academic performance. Although these drugs do not make them smarter, the increased energy and concentration they cause allows students to stay up late cramming the night before an exam or to stay up all night writing a paper due the next day.
- Stress reduction. College students report very high levels of stress, between social pressures, rigorous academic demands, and the difficulties of living away from home for the first time. Many college students turn to prescription drugs to cope with these varied stressors.
Prescriptions drugs are reportedly available in abundance on college campuses, with nearly 75% of students reporting that it is easy to obtain prescription stimulants on campus from other students. According to DoSomething.org, approximately one third of college students will abuse prescription drugs while in college, and two out of every three students will be offered prescription medications by their senior year.
Most common prescription drugs abused
Because of their medical utility, all prescription drugs are currently Schedule II or lower. The schedule of each particular medication depends on its addictiveness, among other factors.
- These medications are designed to relieve severe and chronic pain that cannot be effectively managed with over-the-counter medications like Tylenol or Aspirin. Commonly abused opiate painkillers include morphine, codeine, methadone, Oxycodone, Vicodin, Dilaudid, and Fetanyl. These medications are often swallowed, crushed and snorted, or injected. In addition to their high addiction potential, prescription opiates, like heroin, can lead to an overdose. Opiate overdose can result in lasting brain damage, paralysis, or even death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there were more than 33,000 opioid-related deaths in 2015 and that nearly half of those involved a prescription opioid.
- Depressants aid with sleep, anxiety, and are also used in the treatment of medical conditions like high blood pressure. Commonly abused depressant medications include barbiturates, such as Phenobarbital; benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Librium, or Kolonopin; and sleep medications, like Ambien, Sonata, or Lunesta. Like opiates, depressants are often swallowed or snorted and, in some cases, injected. There is also potential for overdose and death related to these medications, especially when taken at the same time as alcohol, another depressant drug. When used on an ongoing basis, ceasing to use depressants when the body is dependent on them can lead to seizures. Other side effects include breathing irregularity, disorientation, slurred speech, fatigue, and more.
- Stimulant medications, such as Concerta, Ritalin, and Adderall, are instrumental in the treatment of conditions like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In patients with attentional deficits, these medications make it possible to function normally in school, work, and social settings. For those without such deficits, stimulants can increase energy and focus and facilitate weight loss. However, these drugs have a high potential for addiction as well, and can cause side effects like irregular heart beat and body temperature and paranoia.
Long term effects of prescription drug abuse
Use of prescription drugs over time can lead to a number of ill effects. Most prominent and common among these is prescription drug addiction. SAMHSA found in 2014 that, among non-medical users of prescription drugs, 12% met the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder. The specific substance abuse diagnosis will depend on the substance(s) of abuse and the severity—mild, moderate, or severe.
Common features of any prescription drug use disorder include:
- Tolerance: the user requires more of the same drug in order to achieve the same effect.
- Withdrawal: uncomfortable physical symptoms occur when the individual does not use.
- Craving: intense physical and psychological urges to use in the absence of the drug.
- Role failure: the individual is absent from work, school, and/or family activities or misses important deadlines and activities.
- Compulsive use: the individual uses more drugs than originally intended or in a shorter period of time.
- Loss of interest in activities: hobbies and other recreational interests are abandoned in favor of use.
Causes of prescription drug abuse
There are a number of reasons we are seeing such high rates of prescription drug abuse. First of all, these medications are being prescribed at higher rates than ever before. NIDA reports that US pharmacies dispensed nearly three times as many medications in 2011 than in 1991. The Foundation for a Drug Free World found that approximately half of teens in the US perceive prescription drugs to be safer than illicit drugs purchased on the street. Prescription drugs are viewed as safe because they are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and prescribed by medical professionals, who are viewed as knowledgeable and trustworthy.
Teen prescription drug abuse
Because they view prescriptions as safe, legal, and pure, teens are experimenting with prescription drugs at alarming rates. In 2014, 6.2% of youth age 12 to 17 reported using prescription medications for nonmedical reasons among survey participants in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
Teens frequently obtain prescription drugs right in their home, or at the home of a friend or relative. They are also sold and traded among teens at school, at the mall, and at the park. Social media is another means by which teens and youth obtain prescriptions. “Pharm parties,” also known as “Skittle parties,” are a disturbing phenomenon in which high school parties that used to feature alcohol and marijuana now involve teens raiding their medicine cabinets and mixing together everything they find. This is extremely dangerous because teens may have no idea what it is they are taking, and there can be dangerous interactions between various prescription drugs.
Teens with mental health issues, as well as those who have experienced trauma, are at an increased risk of abusing prescription drugs and developing a substance use disorder.
What parents should know
Prevention of prescription drug abuse begins at home. Parents should be careful to keep prescribed medications locked up and out of the reach of children and teens, as well as to dispose of any unused medications appropriately. Community anti-drug coalitions around the country work with law enforcement, pharmacies, and other partners to facilitate prescription take-back days and designated prescription disposal sites.
Parents should look out for the following indications that their child may be abusing prescription substances:
- Changes in sleep and eating
- Flu-like symptoms, which may be an indication of opioid withdrawal
- Increased irritability and volatility in mood
- Changes in group of friends
- Sudden weight gain or loss
- Bruising or unexplained injury
Parents who suspect that a child is abusing substances should have them evaluated for a substance use disorder immediately. Depending on the substances they are using, stopping use can be as dangerous as continuing if not properly monitored.
Treatment for prescription drug abuse
If you or someone you love is abusing prescription drugs, it is likely that they will need treatment in order to get their life back on track. Depending on the type and quantity of drugs they are using, the individual may require detoxification in a medically-monitored treatment environment, followed by residential or outpatient rehabilitation. Residential treatment programs can range from several weeks to several months and focus on teaching individuals in early recovery tools and strategies to maintain abstinence and improve their psychological, social, physical, and emotional well being. Outpatient programs are typically 12 to 30 hours per week and provide similar education and support. However, in an outpatient setting, patients are able to live in the community and, in some cases, remain in school or work while receiving treatment.
To learn about the available options, or to find a treatment program for you or your loved one, the Recover offers a directory of local rehabs and treatment centers for prescription drug abuse. Do not wait to get help.