Large Number of College Students Abusing Prescription Drugs

College life can be difficult: late night studying, early morning classes, all while trying to maintain something that resembles a healthy social life. Learning to develop a balance between personal commitments and academic responsibilities is one of the biggest challenges many college students face. When it comes to staying awake and getting everything done, it seems that a cup of coffee or two isn’t cutting it anymore. In fact, new research shows that college students are seeking more dangerous alternatives to help them keep up with the many demands of college life. Dr. Eugene Rubin, Professor and Vice-Chair for Education in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University reveals that a large number of college students are misusing prescription stimulants.

College Students are Misusing Prescription Drugs

Dr. Rubin explains that “Prescription stimulants are often helpful in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, there are a significant number of college students not being treated for this disorder who obtain and misuse these drugs.” Because of this, a recent study published by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry evaluated the characteristics of college students who are misusing prescription stimulants. Previous studies had showed that 25% or more college students were using prescription stimulants non-medically. These drugs were frequently obtained from other students who had actually been prescribed the drugs for legitimate purposes such as treating ADHD. One of the most common reasons for this misuse is the extra boost of energy that can result from their ingestion. This can be seen as helpful despite the obvious risks for students who want to do more or study longer. Others simply use stimulants for recreational purposes.

 Commonly Abused Prescription Stimulants:

  • Adzenys XR-ODT.
  • Dexmethylphenidate (Focalin XR)
  • Dextroamphetamine (Adderall XR)
  • Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)
  • Methylphenidate (Concerta, Daytrana, Metadate CD, Quillivant XR, Ritalin

Until this recent study conducted by Timothy Wilens and his colleagues, little was actually known about the characteristics of college students who misused stimulant prescriptions. Wilens et al examined a group of 100 college students in the Boston area who admitted to misusing stimulants. These students were then compared to a control group of approximately 198 students who claimed to have never misused prescription stimulants. The researchers then instructed the students to participate in a number of assessments including a DSM-IV-based diagnostic interview.

Symptoms of a Bigger Problem of Drug Dependency

Wiles and his colleagues found that many of the students who admitted to misusing stimulants also had multiple symptoms of stimulant abuse and/or dependence disorder. This means that many of these students had gone from casually using the stimulants to using more regularly. This regular use then began to interfere with their daily functioning. Many of these individuals who misused stimulants also fulfilled the criteria for an alcohol-use disorder, especially when compared with those students who did not misuse the drug. Increased risk of multiple drug misuse was also prevalent in the group of students misusing prescription stimulants.

Researchers also discovered that rates of major depression, psychotic disorders, and bipolar disorders were not very different between the two groups of students. But according to Dr. Rubin, “10% of those misusing stimulants had a history of conduct disorder compared with only 3% of controls.” He also notes that the findings revealed “more of the students misusing stimulants had either a full syndrome of ADHD or a sub-threshold group of ADHD symptoms when compared with the control group (27% vs. 16%).”

Closing the Gateway to Future Addiction

The results from this study show that college students who misuse stimulants are also likely to abuse other substances like marijuana and alcohol. There may also be signs of symptoms relating to ADHD which had previously gone untreated. This may or may not have contributed to the increased likelihood of a conduct disorder growing up among these participants. However, the number of participants who reported having said conduct disorder was small.

The authors of the study suggest that its findings can be helpful in screening students for potential stimulant misuse. This screening can also be used to help identify students with ADHD who had previously gone undiagnosed. Dr. Rubin concludes that “identifying and counseling such students during their college years may help prevent potentially devastating problems down the road, although long-term data about the outcomes of these students are lacking.” After all, if we learn to treat the actual challenge, and better educate college students about the obstacles they may face and how best to approach them, we can help them navigate college in a healthy and successful way, without turning to the misuse and abuse of drugs.

For more information about treating prescription drug dependence, call our national help-line 800-411-9200.