Prescription Drug Abuse in College Is on the Rise and Overlooked

While many people would associate alcohol abuse with college aged-students, the problem of prescription drug abuse in this age group is grossly overlooked.  Illegal use and abuse of prescription drugs is becoming a severely unaddressed problem, largely due to the fact that many students believe that prescription use is safe since it is prescribed by a doctor.  While medications prescribed by a doctor are effective in treating a variety of medical conditions, severe health consequences can result if medications are used in the wrong way.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), non-medical use of pain relievers is on the rise among college-age youth [1].  Although most college students use prescription drugs properly, about one in four people aged 18-20 report using these medications non-medically at least once in their lives [2].  In 2007, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (NCASA) reported that roughly half (49%) of all college students binge drink and a growing number report misusing or abusing prescription drugs [3].  This combination can be lethal as the mixture of prescription drugs and alcohol can lead to dangerous side effects, including overdose and death.

What are the reasons that prescription drugs are becoming more problematically abused on college campuses?  Addiction can begin with misuse of a medication, such as attempting to alleviate pain symptoms by taking a prescription at higher dosages than what is prescribed or by using a friend’s medication.  Prescription misuse can also lead to experimentation, where an individual may attempt to achieve a high by snorting or injecting pills or consuming in combination with alcohol.  What might begin as experimentation or peer pressure can quickly escalate into the vicious cycle of an addiction.  The college years are a time where students are exposed to greater stressors, such as with academics, sports, or finding acceptance in social circles.  These new environmental stressors in combination with increased responsibilities and freedoms can drive college students into unhealthy coping methods.  Because of the ease of accessing prescription drugs (such as from a family member or friend), these medications can become a way of managing daily life or escaping from reality.

Regardless of the reason, it is undeniable that prescription abuse has become a public health concern among college campuses in America.  Research has shown that of undergraduates that are taking stimulant medication under the direction of their doctor, more than half (54%) have been asked to sell, trade, or give away their medication in the past year [4].

Recognizing the early signs of prescription abuse can play an important role in preventing the problem from escalating.  Early signs of abuse include compulsive use of a prescription medication, use of a medication at higher or more frequent doses that what is prescribed by a healthcare provider, and having difficulty performing daily activities due to drug misuse.  If you are a college student and suspect that a friend or roommate may be struggling with prescription drug abuse, it is helpful to confide in someone you can trust, such as a College Counselor on campus.  Problems can also be prevented by exercising proper use of prescription medications, such as using as directed, keeping in a secure place that only you have access to, and disposing of old/unused medications properly.

While the college years can be a time of stress and turmoil, understand that prescription drug abuse is not a safe coping method under any circumstances.  As with any addiction, the effects will only serve to mask deep rooted issues temporarily.  If you or a loved one is struggling with any form of addiction, know that there is hope for recovery and freedom!  Take the first step today and reach out for help.


[1]:  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

[2]:  National Survey on Drug Use and Health

[3]:  The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University

[4]: McCabe, S. E., Teter, C. J., & Boyd, C. J. (2006). Medical use, illicit use and diversion of prescription stimulant medication. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 38, 43-56