07:29 AM

Misuse of stimulants remains a top concern on college campuses

Sharing of prescription drugs an issue, researchers say

Almost 16 percent of college students say they misuse prescription stimulants, often in the quest for better grades, a new survey of U.S. undergraduate, graduate and professional students has found.

And more than 9 percent of students said they had misused pain medications – roughly the same percentage of students who reported non-medical use of sedatives, according to the 2018 College Prescription Drug Study, led by researchers at The Ohio State University.

A majority of students who misuse prescription drugs – including 79 percent of stimulant users, 57 percent of sedative users and 51 percent of pain medication users – said they obtained the drugs from friends.

The research included responses from 19,539 randomly sampled students from 26 U.S. institutions. Undergraduate, graduate and professional students were asked to anonymously answer a series of questions about non-medical prescription drug use and misuse.

Other key findings from this year’s survey include:

  • 28 percent said it’s somewhat or very easy to obtain stimulants, which students primarily use to study or improve grades
  • 20 percent said it’s somewhat or very easy to obtain sedatives, which survey respondents reported using most often for sleep or anxiety relief
  • 16 percent said it’s somewhat or very easy to obtain pain medication, which students use most often to get high or relieve pain
  • Only 8 percent of respondents said they kept their own prescription drugs in a locked space
  • 79 percent of students who reported misuse said they knew where to get help if they were worried about misuse
  • More than half – 55 percent – of pain medication users reported that they had not used the drugs in the past year.

“This data helps inform programming, services and our ongoing conversations with students,” said Anne McDaniel, executive director of Ohio State’s Center for the Study of Student Life.

Ohio State began prescription drug misuse studies in 2008; the first multi-institutional College Prescription Drug Study was conducted in 2015. The work is done collaboratively by Ohio State’s Center for the Study of Student Life, Student Life Student Wellness Center and the College of Pharmacy.

“One of our major findings is how many students who misuse prescription drugs are getting those pills from fellow students,” McDaniel said. “A vast majority of our survey respondents aren’t keeping their medications in a locked, secure place and that’s worrisome.”

The study found that 21 percent of students with a prescription for stimulant medication had given it to a friend or peer in the previous 12 months and 11 percent of respondents with a stimulant prescription reported selling it to a friend or peer in the previous year.

McDaniel also noted the high percentage of students who said they are anxious and use the prescriptions to self-medicate. Almost half of students who said they used sedatives, and about a third who misused pain pills, cited anxiety as one of their reasons for doing so.

“According to the national research, feelings of anxiety and anxiety diagnoses have really increased in the last decade, and the data shows that some students report that they deal with their anxiety by taking medications that aren’t prescribed to them,” she said.

University leaders nationwide are looking for ways to connect students with appropriate support and medical resources, and to help them build healthy coping skills, said Blake Marble, director of Ohio State’s Student Life Student Wellness Center.

The survey results will help guide efforts to educate students about prescription drug misuse in the hopes of preventing problems including addiction, injury and death, he said.

At Ohio State, one particular focus is a “social norms” campaign that aims to correct misperceptions that students may have about drug and alcohol misuse, Marble said.

“Sometimes students think that most other students are engaging in risky behaviors, when in fact that’s not the case,” he said. “First-year students, especially, are coming to campus andthinking ‘Wow, college is going to be a party scene,’ when, in fact, that is not the case for the vast majority of students.

“We want to correct some of those misperceptions that are out there. We want to show the students true data to help them get a grasp on the climate at Ohio State and other universities,” Marble said.

Though prescription drug misuse is an issue for a minority of students, Marble said he is particularly concerned about stimulant use – which students say they may use both to enhance classroom and study performance and to enhance social situations.

“The stimulant misuse data is not terribly surprising, but it is quite concerning. A lot of students misuse Ritalin and Adderall and those types of drugs because they think it will help them to study and improve their grades,” said Nicole Kwiek, assistant dean for undergraduate studies in Ohio State’s College of Pharmacy.

Of particular concern is the mixing of stimulants with other drugs and with alcohol, which can be deadly, she said. Among those students who said they misused stimulants, 41 percent reported combining them with alcohol, although most said they’d done that “rarely.”

Kwiek said she was surprised to learn that many students who misuse medication say they are doing it more for self-medication than to get high.

The survey highlights an opportunity for Ohio State and other academic institutions to look for ways to educate students about prescription medications – from proper use and risks of misuse, to secure storage in the interest of preventing others from taking the drugs, she said.

“Just like we teach a lot of basic life skills in college, shouldn’t we be teaching people about this in college as well?” Kwiek said.

“This information is so valuable because it helps us understand what people are using, how they’re using it and what their perceptions are about that use,” she said. “This is the kind of data that helps colleges figure out how best to run prevention campaigns.”

For more details about the Ohio State study, contact the study team at rxstudy@osu.edu.