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Professional Opinion

College kids and prescription drugs

Habits begun in college may carry on long after graduation Habits begun in college may carry on long after graduation
University Business, May 2015
Kent Runyon is executive director of the Novus Medical Detox Center in Florida.
Kent Runyon is executive director of the Novus Medical Detox Center in Florida.

The U.S. makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it consumes 75 percent of the world’s prescription drugs. Additionally, 52 million people in the U.S. over the age of 12 have used prescription drugs non-medically in their lifetime.

With these statistics working against us, it’s no surprise that prescription drugs are being used illegally on college campuses. In fact, about one in four college students has illegally used prescription drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse, and many more have been offered these medications while on campus.

How are students getting access to these prescription medications? A survey by Drugfree.org found that 26 percent of students with valid prescriptions shared with friends and 52 percent reported being pressured into doing so. College students are twice as likely to use a stimulant for non-medical reasons than are people who are not in college.

Students may consume prescription drugs like their classmates consume coffee—during study sessions, cramming for exams and when under academic pressure.

These drugs can have side effects more serious than a failing exam grade—increases in heart rate and blood pressure, organ damage, difficulty breathing, seizure, heart attack, stroke and death.

Addiction and dependence

While most college kids will survive abusing meds, studies suggest that students are forming a dangerous habit. Ninety percent of college students who used Adderall non-medically in the past year were also binge drinkers, and more than half were heavy alcohol users.

These same students were nearly three times as likely to have used marijuana in the past year, eight times more likely to have used cocaine, and five times more likely to have used prescription pain relievers. Dependence often accompanies addiction.

However, a person can be dependent without being addicted. The stress of life and work for many actually increases, and the crutch of using medications can carry on after graduation.

Changing addiction picture

Higher-income Americans with college educations are increasingly struggling with prescription drug addiction. It’s not unusual for me to see successful professionals telling their employees and employers that they are taking a vacation, then come in for a weeklong medical detox. I see business leaders conducting conference calls from their patient room.

At every social event and holiday gathering, I have family and friends asking me what the solution is. People are very complicated, and there are no simple answers.

Here is what I say can be done now:

  • People have to be informed of the dangers of prescription drugs. Prescription drugs provide instant gratification, but the effects can build over time. It’s like eating fried food—it tastes great now, but our bodies feel the effects later.
  • We need to teach our children effective ways to succeed academically without turning to drugs. They need to learn time management, stress management and basic studying skills.
  • We need to educate our family physicians about addiction. They need to prescribe medications with great caution and to educate their patients about addiction risks and the side effects of prescription medication.
  • We must make quality medical detox and quality drug treatment more available. These services are expensive, and many people either cannot afford the services or cannot afford to be off work to invest in their sobriety.
  • We have to focus law enforcement on those who distribute and deal drugs. And we need to stop punishing users and addicts. We waste too much money incarcerating people whose only crime is addiction.

Medical detox comes into play when someone is dependent on drugs. There are quality programs around, but be sure they are nationally accredited with an established track record.

It is important to be informed on this topic. We need to accept that there is a strong likelihood that someone in our sphere of influence is struggling with dependence or addiction. Understand this: There is hope.

Kent Runyon is executive director of the Novus Medical Detox Center in Florida.

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