My first encounter with casual prescription drug use happened during my sophomore year of college. I was in the middle of finals week, and after a rough day of exams, my roommate’s loud humming and pencil tapping disrupted my sleep.
At 3:30 a.m., she seemed to have an uncharacteristic energy about her, and I jokingly thought to myself that she must have been on drugs. It turns out I was right. The next day she admitted to taking several Adderall pills to help her power through a late-night study session.
My second encounter occurred about a year later, while working on a group project with randomly assigned classmates. Due to our hectic schedules, the only time our group of six could meet was after midnight, and two people offered to share their Ritalin with everyone, in order to stay awake. Although I declined, another boy jumped on the chance to take the pill. At the time, I was floored by how easy the exchange was; there was little hesitation to distribute and receive the medication.
But in retrospect, the instances in which I noticed my peers consuming prescription drugs were actually part of a larger trend across universities nationwide. In unpredictable, stressful academic environments like college campuses, students go to great lengths to enhance their performance in any way they can. Like many other addictive drugs, prescription drug use is ultimately a quick and easy solution to tackle overwhelming pressure that students experience on a day-to-day basis.
According to Oregon State, student abuse prescription drugs to manage stress, conform to social pressures, heighten focus and to elevate one’s mood. A report issued by the National Institute of Drug Abuse states that the most popular types of medication used to achieve those objectives fall into three broad categories: stimulants, opioids, and central nervous system depressants. Opioids such as OxyContin and Demerol are specifically designed to relieve pain, while depressants like Ambien and Xanax are used to decrease brain activity. Prescribed drugs in the latter category assist with reducing anxiety and sleep disorders. Finally, brain stimulants, including Ritalin and Adderall, are typically given to people who have trouble with focus.
Today, the medical community considers the abuse of prescription drugs on college campuses an epidemic. The number of stimulant users in the general population skyrocketed from 5 million people to 45 million people within the last 20 years, and 35 percent of college students take prescription drugs illegally.
But prescription drug abuse can actually impede academic performance. According to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) last year, the number one cause of accidental death was prescription drug abuse. Last January, the Clinton Foundation also explained that deaths related to overdosing on prescription drugs surmounted the combined number of deaths caused by cocaine and heroin.
Furthermore, abuse can have adverse consequences on one’s mental health. Depression, anxiety, and psychosis are among a litany of negative side effects associated with overusing prescription drugs.
In light of the escalating pattern among students, universities across the country are initiating policies to crack down on the issue and minimize legal liabilities. For example, Fresno State requires students to complete a tedious testing process before diagnosing them and authorizing medication. To receive a prescription, students must meet regularly with mental health professionals, agree to take drug tests, and promise not to circulate pills among their peers. Other schools, such as Marquette University require parental consent and access to students’ comprehensive medical histories before allowing stimulant use.
However, given the competitive, demanding, and exhausting nature of higher learning, institutions should turn their attention to the development of mental health resources on college campuses – as opposed to creating obstacles to receiving appropriate medical attention. One of the appeals of prescription drugs is their easy accessibility, which suggests that comprehensive mental health care is really the solution that students need.
Carimah Townes is a Special Assistant for ThinkProgress. She received a B.A. in political science from UCLA, where she also studied cultural anthropology. While in school, she served as a festival planner and interned with the Office of Mayor Villaraigosa. Before joining ThinkProgress, she worked for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and interned with the Communications and Development teams at Vital Voices Global Partnership.