Prescription drug use in college and how parents can help

By Amanda Taylor

My 20-year-old son was hanging out on campus the other day waiting for a French class to begin when he was approached by a guy who casually asked, “Hey, man, do you know where I can find some Adderall?” This type of inquiry is more common than you might think.

According to the American College Health Association, non-medical use of prescription medications is the second most common form of illicit drug use on college campuses, next to marijuana.

More overused than cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin are drugs found in our medicine cabinets. Often thought of as safe (because they are FDA approved and prescribed by a medical provider), stimulants, opioids, depressants, and many psychotropic drugs can have dire consequences when misused and abused.

According to the Clinton Foundation, prescription drug abuse is the third leading cause of accidental death in the United States and affects college students at disproportionate rates. It’s no wonder that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified prescription drug abuse as an epidemic.

Misuse is defined as using a drug in the wrong way or for the wrong purpose.

Statistics show that parents can make a difference by talking to their students about the real risks of misusing and abusing prescription meds. Ask your student what she observes in the residence hall, in the locker room, at parties.

Are there “drugs of choice” on her campus? If your student has a prescription, make sure he’s using it responsibly — remind him that it’s dangerous (and illegal) to share pills with friends.

Your daughter has been diagnosed with ADHD and takes a regular dose of medication each morning. Finals are approaching and she is bogged down with too much work and too little time. In order to get it all done, she decides to take an extra dose of Adderall each night during finals week. After all, it will enhance her concentration and help her stay awake as she crams for a test or writes a paper. She makes it through finals with good enough grades but has lost weight, is physically and mentally exhausted, and does not have enough medication to get her through the rest of the month.

Your son was injured in a skiing accident and occasionally takes a prescribed painkiller to deal with severe back pain after rigorous workouts. One evening his friend sees the bottle in his bathroom and says, “Hey, I hear if you mix this with alcohol you’ll get really high. Can I try one?” Your son agrees and they both pop a pill and chase it with a beer.

Your first-year student is having a tough time adjusting to college — she’s anxious and not sleeping well. Her roommate has a prescription for Xanax and tells her it will calm her nerves and help her sleep. Your daughter is amazed at how much better she feels. She tries to get her own prescription but is met with resistance by the university health clinic. Instead, they encourage her to seek counseling. She decides to look for the drug on campus and finds it easy to buy.

The “Big Three” classes of misused drugs

STIMULANTS: Adderall, Concerta, Ritalin

  • Prescribed to treat ADHD and Narcolepsy, stimulants are cognitive enhancers that help to increase focus, alertness, attention, and energy
  • Work on the nervous system and brain, speeding up brain activity and producing the “feel good” neurotransmitter dopamine
  • Misuse: Used to help study, pull all-nighters, and/or achieve a euphoric state often coupled with alcohol or other drugs to increase effect
  • Dangers: When misused, stimulants can cause psychosis, panic attacks, sweating, hallucinations, heart attack, stroke, coma, and increased heart rate and blood pressure.

OPIOIDS: Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin

  • Prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain
  • Work to block the pain receptors to the brain
  • Misuse: Used to achieve a “high” or euphoric feeling and often coupled with alcohol and other drugs to increase effect
  • Dangers: When misused, either by taking too much and/or combining with alcohol, antihistamines, or other drugs, opioids are the most likely drug to depress the respiratory system resulting in cardiac arrest and death. Abuse can cause constipation, low blood pressure, confusion, and organ damage.

DEPRESSANTS: Xanax, Ambien, Ativan, Klonopin, Valium

  • Prescribed to treat anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disorders, generalized tension
  • Work to slow down the central nervous system and brain creating a relaxed effect
  • Misuse: Used to relax, come down from an ecstasy high, maximize effects of alcohol, and calm jitters due to hangovers
  • Dangers: Misuse can lead to addiction, drowsiness, loss of coordination, slurred speech, coma, sudden death if abruptly stopped after long-term use, seizures, organ damage

Knowledge is power

There is only so much we as parents can do to safeguard our students. At some point they will need to make critical decisions for themselves.

Open, nonjudgmental dialogue is key to helping our students make smart, informed decisions.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Remember, students with above average grades, solid support systems and a strong set of values can innocently decide to experiment with prescription meds, not knowing the possible risks.
  • Buying and selling prescription drugs is against the law and can carry felony sentences in some cases.
  • Talk with your student about developing healthy coping skills, especially if they are struggling in school or experiencing social or academic stress. Campuses generally have a counseling center to help students through the many stressors of high school and college life.