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Prescription Drug Misuse Shown as Common on Campus

Prescription Drug Misuse Shown as Common on Campus

Prescription drug use for non-medical reasons is a fairly common practice among college students, according to the 2015 College Prescription Drug Study (CPDS).

“Overall, one in four undergraduates reported that they used prescription pain medications, sedatives or stimulants for non-medical reasons in their lifetimes,” said Anne McDaniel, Ph.D., author of the study and associate director of research and data management at Ohio State University’s Center for the Study of Student Life.

Stimulant use was the most common, with seven out of 10 college students reporting that it is somewhat or very easy to obtain controlled stimulants without a prescription. About 18 percent of undergraduates reported misusing prescription stimulants such as Adderall. The great majority (83 percent) received them from friends and most said they used the drug to help them study or improve their grades.

The anonymous survey included 3,918 students attending six public and two private colleges and universities in five states. The survey included undergraduate, as well as graduate and professional students. The results for both groups were similar, although undergraduates were more likely to be misusing prescription drugs.

After stimulants, pain medications were the most misused prescription medications, used by 10 percent of undergraduates. About a third of students said it was easy or very easy to obtain pain medications.

About nine percent of undergrads used sedatives, with 44 percent saying it was easy or very easy to find them on campus.

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

The survey found that slightly more than half of undergraduates who misused prescription drugs had used illicit drugs in their place at some point. The most common reason was because the illicit drugs were easier to obtain.

Marijuana was the most common illicit drug replacing prescription medications, used by half of undergraduates, followed by cocaine and hallucinogens at 19 percent. Nearly two percent had used heroin, which is very concerning, Hale said.

“There’s been a lot of media attention given to the recent rise in heroin use and for good reason,” he said. “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.”

Depression is a disturbing side effect of prescription drug misuse and was reported by 20 percent of those who used pain medications, 14 percent of those using sedatives and nine percent of stimulant users.

Nearly one-third of sedative users experienced memory loss, as did 17 percent of those who misused pain medications. Between seven and 19 percent of users said they did things they wish they hadn’t as a result of their prescription drug use.

“These drugs require a prescription for a reason,” McDaniel said. “Students need to be under the care and supervision of a physician when they’re using these powerful medications.”

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

“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.”

The researchers said the findings show the need for more education and intervention with college students regarding prescription drug misuse.

Source: Ohio State University

Student taking pills photo by shutterstock.

Prescription Drug Misuse Shown as Common on Campus

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Prescription Drug Misuse Shown as Common on Campus. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 17 Oct 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.