Prescription drug abuse on college campuses

Abuse of prescription drugs on college campuses has become a growing epidemic. Campuses are concerned about the health risks, including the long-lasting addictions that many students develop.

Especially on the rise is abuse of muscle relaxants such as Xanax and Valium, painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin, sedatives such as Nembutal and Seconal, and stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall.

These so-called psychotherapeutic drugs are popular among college students and others because they target the central nervous system, offering relief from stress and anxiety which is increasingly common among college students (see blog on this topic) as well as relief from pain, aid for sleep, cognitive improvements to boost grades, and of course the feeling of being "high." Most students who get their hands on prescription drugs report getting them from friends or relatives.

Of additional concern is that prescription drug abuse, like abuse of alcohol, often leads to other risky behaviors that result in sexual assault and rape. Other side effects include increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, organ damage and even death.

Overdose deaths from prescription painkillers alone have more than tripled in the last 20 years, mainly from 18-25 year olds.

The consequence is that that drug overdoses kill one person every 19 minutes in the United States, more deaths than from car accidents and more than from overdoses of heroin and cocaine combined, bumping prescription drug abuse up to the third leading cause of accidental death.

Public health and law enforcement officials report the percentage of college students and others abusing prescription drugs is increasing for several reasons, including pressure to succeed academically and other stressors of college life, the false sense of security in knowing that the drug was prescribed by a doctor, increasing availability, and increasing social acceptance.

Research on how college students cope shows they either try to solve the problem for asking for help, or they try to put it in perspective so it doesn't bother them. If they are not able to successfully do one of these, they are more likely to reach for the solution found in prescription drugs.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is taking steps to reduce the abuse by creating awareness through educational curriculum and by monitoring prescription drug programs in every state to reduce "doctor shopping." Both of these strategies are expected to help curb prescription drug abuse by college students.