Self-Medicating College Students

Depression more common among college students recreationally using prescription drugs

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) College is a tough time of transitions and self-exploration for many students. But students feeling depressed may be self-medicating instead of seeking the help they need.

A recent study has found that more than one in 10 college students has used prescription drugs without a doctor's prescription.

Additionally, these students are much more likely to have symptoms of depression than their peers.

"Don't use prescription drugs for non-medical reasons."

Amanda Divin, PhD, an assistant professor of health sciences at Western Illinois University, and Keith Zullig, MSPH, PhD, an associate professor in the West Virginia University School of Public Health, conducted a study to look at possible links between non-doctor-prescribed prescription drug use and mental health symptoms.

The study used a sample of 26,600 college students from 40 campuses across the US, part of the data set from the fall 2008 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA).

The ACHA-NCHA is a national research survey that asks students about seven different areas of health. These areas include alcohol, tobacco, drug use, mental health symptoms and non-medical prescription drug use such as painkillers, stimulants, sedatives and anti-depressants taken without a doctor's prescription.

Divin and Zullig found that 13 percent of the college students who responded to the survey reported having used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes.

Students who reported feeling hopeless, sad, depressed or potentially suicidal were more likely to report using these drugs than the students without these depression symptoms - especially among females.

"Because prescription drugs are tested by the US Food and Drug Administration and prescribed by a doctor, most people perceive them as 'safe' and don't see the harm in sharing with friends or family if they have a few extra pills left over," Divin said.

Divin and Zullig suspect students may be self-medicating when they feel stressed or depressed instead of seeking the help they need. Divin pointed out that students may not be aware of the risks of using these drugs without a doctor's supervision.

"Unfortunately, all drugs potentially have dangerous side effects. As our study demonstrates, use of prescription drugs -- particularly painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycontin -- is related to depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts and behaviors in college students," Divin said.

"This is why use of such drugs need to be monitored by a doctor and why mental health outreach on college campuses is particularly important," she added.

The study will appear in the August 2012 issue of Addictive Behaviors: An International Journal. No information was available regarding study funding or possible conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 12, 2012
Last Updated:
October 24, 2012