Stretched by school: Nearly one in five college students say they use stimulants

Study finds 20% of college students have abused the drugs

The use of stimulants is growing on college campuses—nearly 20% of current students say they have abused prescription stimulants at least once in their lifetimes, according to a new study released by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

Researchers surveyed 1,621 young adults, and a sub-sample of 406 confirmed abusers of stimulants as part of their research. Their analysis found 50% of young adults (ages 18 to 25) and about 44% of current college students who have used stimulants did so to improve academic performance.

Perhaps most concerning is the fact that most users seem rewarded for their abuse. Almost two-thirds (64%) of college students who abuse stimulants reported positive results—such as improved grades, better performance at work, or gaining a "competitive edge." Among students, stimulant abuse was highly correlated to feeling pressure to use stimulants for better grades. About 50% of student users say they felt pressure to use the drugs, compared with 19% for non-users.

A juggler—but not a 'goof-off'

Experts say stimulants have gained popularity because students are struggling to manage their busy lifestyles. Josh Hersh, staff psychiatrist at Miami University, says "learning time management strategies such as 'block scheduling' and 'syllabus tracking' can help prevent 'cramming' – the main reason people look to stimulants at whatever the price."

However, the survey suggests students do not just use stimulants for academic reasons. Students who abused stimulants were more likely than non-abusers to define themselves as leaders (60% vs. 51%), and a "social hub" among their friends (38% vs. 22%). Tellingly, 50% of student stimulant users said they struggled to balance their social and work lives—compared to 33% of non-users.

How to cultivate college navigation skills

Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, says the data suggests more students are "burning the candle at both ends," trying to achieve "their academic and social goals." The typical abuser is not an "academic 'goof-off'" with a low GPA, explains Sean Clarkin, director of strategy and program management at the nonprofit. Rather, he's "juggling a very busy schedule that includes academics, work, and an active social life."

Limit access through tighter control, better education

Pasierb argues controlling the abuse of stimulants on campus should start with educating students who are legitimately prescribed the medications. In particular, he recommends explaining the risks of distributing them to friends and how to store the drugs responsibly. Fifty-seven percent of students who abused stimulants reported obtaining them for a friend.

Clinicians serving students can also help curb stimulant abuse. According to the survey, 28% of students who were prescribed the medication exaggerated their symptoms to receive a larger dose. "This highlights a clear need for better education and awareness, among prescribers and clinicians, to help them understand that these are savvy kids who may go to great lengths in order to obtain the medication or even higher doses of Rx stimulants," says Pasierb.

See more resources on student health and wellness

The Partnership for Drug-Fee kids has set up a website to educate the public about how they can help control prescription drug abuse. The group also encourages colleges trying to curb abuse to invest in resources that teach students better time management skills.

"If we fail to act, social norms around the practice become further normalized and even more challenging to reverse," says Cheryl Healton, dean of the Global Institute of Public Health at New York University (Feliz, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids media release, 11/13; Haelle, HealthDay/U.S. News & World Report, 11/13).

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