1 in 10 College Students Misusing Pain Meds

By Pat Anson, Editor

One out of 10 college students are misusing prescription pain medications, according to a new survey conducted on eight U.S. college campuses. About a third of students said it was easy or very easy to obtain pain medications.

Nearly 4,000 graduate and undergraduate students were surveyed in the 2015 College Prescription Drug Study (CPDS) by Ohio State’s Center for the Study of Student Life. 

The anonymous survey of students at six public and two private colleges and universities in five states is believed to be the most comprehensive study of prescription drug misuse on multiple campuses.

Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin are the most widely misused prescription drug. About 18% of undergraduates reported misusing stimulants. The great majority (83%) received them from friends and most said they used the drug to help them study or improve their grades.

“At one time, college students most commonly misused drugs to get high,” said Kenneth Hale, a clinical professor of pharmacy at Ohio State. “But today, students also use medications to self-medicate, to manage their lives. They are using drugs to control pain, to go to sleep, to relieve anxiety and to study.”

For example, 55% of students who misused pain medications said they did it to relieve pain, while 46% said they did it to get high. More than half who misused sedatives said their aim was to get to sleep, while 85% who misused stimulants wanted to improve their grades or studying.

About 9% of undergrads used sedatives, with nearly half saying it was easy or very easy to find them on campus.

The misuse of prescription drugs often came with side effects. About 20% of those who used pain medications said they were depressed and 17% said they experienced memory loss.

Students may overestimate the value they get from using prescription drugs, particularly stimulants. About two-thirds of the students said stimulants had a positive effect on their academics, but researchers say that’s probably not true.

“Studies have shown that students who misuse stimulants tend to have lower GPAs,” Hale said. “Some students think of them as cognitive enhancers, but they are really cognitive compensators for students who didn’t go to class, didn’t study and then have to stay up all night to cram for an exam.”

Misuse of prescriptions drugs often led to illegal drugs. More than half of the undergraduates who misused prescribed meds had used illegal drugs in their place at some point. Marijuana was used by half of undergrads who misused controlled drugs, followed by cocaine and hallucinogens at 19 percent. Nearly 2% moved on to heroin.

“Research shows that the misuse of prescription pain medications can be a stepping stone to heroin, and the average age for starting the misuse of these medications falls within the traditional college years,” Hale said.

A 2012 survey found that one in four American teenagers has misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime. The survey by The Partnership at Drugfree.org found that teenage abuse of opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin had leveled off but remains high. Over 2.1 million teens admitted misusing narcotic painkillers in the past year.