Shattering the myths about drug abuse, National Drug Facts Week reveals that prescription drug abuse is not safer than illegal drug abuse. Of course illegal drug abuse is always a concern to watch out for among teens and young adults, but the misuse of legal prescription medications is increasingly the subject of new studies.
In 2007, the number of overdose deaths from prescription opiates outnumbered deaths from heroin and cocaine combined according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). A shocking statistic that those involved in substance abuse prevention and addiction treatment hope to bring awareness to.
A recent study led by Lauren K. Whiteside, M.D., of the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle found that one in 10 teens reported using opiates or prescription sedatives for non-medical reasons. Only a small number of teens using opiates and sedatives had a prescription for them, and teens who used them for non-medical reasons were more likely to misuse other substances as well.
Chris Galloway, M.D., a daily Rx expert specializing in emergency medicine, said narcotic pain medications are one of the most often prescribed drug classes, with sedatives not far behind.
“When monitored, these medications can be effective and safe,” Galloway said. “The reality is that we are seeing an ever increasing number of patients using these drugs with out prescription.”
Another report from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Substance Abuse at America’s Colleges and Universities, reveals a disturbing public health crisis on college campuses.
CASA found that the intensity of excessive drinking and other drug use has risen sharply from 1993 to 2005, reporting that nearly half of full-time college students binge drink, abuse prescription drugs and/or abuse of illegal drugs.
Almost one in four of university students meet the criteria for substance abuse or dependence. This study places students at a two and a half times the proportion of rest of the U.S. population that meet this same criteria.
SMU Director of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention John H. Sanger defines drug abuse as the use of illegal drugs, or the misuse of recreational use of prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Sanger added that this also includes taking someone else’s medication or taking your own prescription in a manner not consistent with your doctor’s instructions.
The drug abuse problem among university students goes beyond the binge drinking commonly seen on college campuses. Since the early 1990s the proportion of students abusing prescription opioids, stimulants tranquilizers and sedatives has increased dramatically.
The amount of students abusing pain killers increased 343 percent to 240,000 students and sedatives increased 225 percent to 101,000 students according according to CASA’s original assessment.
Sanger also commented that drug abuse, including the risk of prescription medication, happens in all areas of society including college campuses.
So what exactly are opiates and sedatives? Opiates are narcotic pain killers usually prescribed to treat pain. Sedative drugs includes sleep aids and barbiturates. Both opiates and sedatives can be inappropriately used for recreational purposes.
“Opiates and sedatives both act as central nervous system depressants and there is danger of overdose and death, especially when taken in combination with other depressants including alcohol,” Sanger said. “There is also a danger of addiction — especially with opiates, as tolerance builds rapidly and users find themselves using increasingly larger and stronger doses.”
According to Sanger, the increased availability through prescriptions, diversion of medication, online and street sources and the increasing acceptance of recreational substance abuse among students — especially in the 18- to 24-year-old age range — are some reasons as to why the number of teenagers and students using prescription drugs is growing.
CASA surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,000 students who said they drink and abuse substances to relieve stress, relax, have fun, forget about their problems and, under peer pressure, used to feel included.
This is not a new problem by any means, but it is a one that deserves some new attention. Although prescription medications can be strong allies, they can also lead to some serious health risks when abused.
“Opiate users who become physically dependent become very ill when they stop using, and this also drives and maintains the ongoing struggle to continue using to avoid feeling sick,” Sanger said. “Withdrawal from sedatives can be life-threatening and should be medically managed.”
The NIDA reports that when opiates are abused, a large single dose can cause severe respiratory depression and death. Withdrawal symptoms can occur if drug use is suddenly reduced or stopped, including restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps and involuntary leg movements.
Sedatives cause drowsiness and sleepiness as well as reducing heart rate and breathing, in some cases them to the point that death occurs. Other side effects include experiences of depression, thoughts of self-injury or suicide, anxiety, aggression, restlessness, hallucinations and loss of personality.
Students who may be struggling with this issue or other forms of substance abuse can seek help from a variety of resources provided by the SMU Center of Alcohol and drug Abuse Prevention, which can also help students find appropriate help and resources in the community. Free and confidential consultation and counseling is available through the center.
SMU also has a weekly Student Recovery Support Group which meets in the Dedman Center for Lifetime Sports every Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Room 104. There is also a 12-Step Support Group at the Highland Park United Methodist Church each Thursday at 6 p.m. in Room 385.