Study Helps Understanding of Prescription Drug Abuse by College Students

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The pattern of drug use initiation is changing. Teens that experiment with drugs are likely to be introduced to drug use through the misuse of prescription drugs rather than responding to offers of cocaine or heroin. While traditional street drugs are still popular, prescription drugs are gaining popularity among teens because they are relatively easy to obtain.

Prescription drugs are often obtained through the medicine cabinet at home, or from a grandparent’s house. Some teens will even watch for opportunities in which medications are left on a kitchen counter at a friend’s house, or they may buy unused drugs from a friend who has a legitimate prescription.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that there has been a significant increase in emergency room visits related to prescription stimulants among college students. The number of emergencies related to prescription stimulants has more than tripled.

A new study has examined various factors related to the illicit use of prescription stimulants (IUPS) with the purpose in mind of helping to reduce the use and target high-risk individuals for education and prevention efforts (Bavarian Flay, Ketcham & Smit, 2013).

The study is based on the previous work that identified the Theory of Triadic Influence, which theorizes that intrapersonal, social and environmental factors work together to influence whether a person engages in prescription misuse. These three areas promote prescription misuse through various predictors.

The researchers focused on the responses of 520 undergraduate students from 20 classrooms at Pacific Northwest University during a 2012 survey. The response rate of the survey was 96 percent.

The students surveyed were evenly split on gender, but were largely non-Hispanic, upperclassmen and white. They completed the survey about illicit use of prescription drugs, which was defined as use that was not based on a prescription, for nonmedical purposes, or use that was in excess of the dosage prescribed by a doctor.

The responses to the survey indicated that 26 percent of the students had misused prescription stimulants during their college career. Of those who had used them, 70 percent had initiated use during college.

There were several protective factors identified from the survey results, including living on campus, having an ancestry of Asian/Pacific Islander, an exposure to media related to prescription drug safety and the perception that the misuse of prescription drugs could be avoided. In addition, the researchers were surprised to learn that the perception of faculty approval of prescription misuse made a student less likely to use them.

There were also several risk factors identified through the survey, including having a lower grade point average, a lifetime history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, participation in a varsity sport, the behavior of friends, knowledge of stimulant drugs and knowledge of the costs and benefits of using prescription drugs in nonmedical ways.

The researchers note that there are several factors that could limit the application of the findings. The data used was reliant on self-report and reflects all of the potential recall bias and other reporting errors implicit in that form of data gathering. In addition, the study was of a cross-sectional design, indicating that the results are a snapshot of drug misuse.

Finally, the administration of the survey at only one academic institution may limit its application to the general population of college students. There could be variations of prescription drug use culture reflected in various universities that could impact the risk factors and protective factors involved in prescription drug use decisions.

The findings are helpful in assisting college administrators with identifying and addressing patterns of prescription misuse in their institutions. The administrators can use the information to identify potential high-risk students who may be likely to engage in prescription stimulant misuse, as well as intervene in cases where misuse is already occurring.

Universities can also use the findings to help build awareness among students about the dangers of using prescription stimulants for nonmedical purposes. Early intervention is one of the key factors in successful recovery from prescription misuse.

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