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17 Percent of College Students Abuse ADHD Drugs

New findings from a group of American researchers indicate that almost one-fifth of all U.S. college students misuse a prescription medication classified as a stimulant.

In the U.S., college attendance is associated with increased chances of consuming a number of substances, including alcohol and marijuana/cannabis. In a study review and analysis published in March 2015 in the journal Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, researchers from three American universities estimated the percentage of college students currently involved in the misuse/abuse of stimulant medications prescribed for the treatment of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) or other conditions. These researchers also sought to identify the characteristics of those college students with the highest chances of improperly consuming a stimulant medication.

Prescription Stimulants and Reasons for Misuse

Prescription stimulants are powerful medications that speed up the rate of activity inside the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and provide treatment benefits for people affected by ADHD and other conditions such as narcolepsy and medically serious obesity. Some of these medications contain a substance called amphetamine or an amphetamine relative known as dextroamphetamine. Other stimulant medications contain legally produced methamphetamine or non-amphetamine-related substances like methylphenidate.

Together, stimulant medications form the third most commonly abused class of prescription medications in the U.S. (outranked only by opioid medications and sedative-hypnotic medications classified as tranquilizers). According to figures released in late 2014 by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), roughly 0.5 percent of all Americans over the age of 11 misuse/abuse a prescription stimulant in the typical month. Some people start misusing stimulants out of a desire to reduce their hunger levels and control their weight. Others start misusing these medications out of a desire to stay alert during waking hours, while a third group of individuals primarily use prescription stimulants for purely recreational purposes and a desire to feel “high.” A fourth group of stimulant misusers/abusers are motivated by a misguided desire to boost their mental focus and thereby increase their level of academic performance. (In this context, stimulant medications are commonly known as “study drugs.”)

College Students and Substance Misuse

SAMHSA figures indicate that roughly 22 percent of all full-time students in the typical college age range of 18 to 22 misuse/abuse a prescription medication or a recreational drug like marijuana/cannabis. This rate of involvement is much higher than the rates maintained by adults who have never finished high school, adults who have only finished high school, adults who previously attended college without graduating and adults who have graduated from college. It is roughly equivalent to the rate found among students currently enrolled in college on a part-time basis. As a rule, men enrolled in college have higher chances of consuming a recreational drug or improperly using a prescription medication than their female counterparts.

College Students and Prescription Stimulant Misuse

In the study review and analysis published in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, researchers from the University of South Carolina, the Tulane University School of Medicine and the University of California, Los Angeles used data from a range of prior studies to help determine how often college students misuse/abuse prescription stimulants. The researchers used the same data to explore the reasons for improper stimulant consumption on college campuses, as well as the psychological factors and demographic factors that make a student more likely to engage in a pattern of misuse/abuse.

After completing their review and analysis, the researchers concluded that roughly 17 percent of all students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities improperly use a prescription stimulant medication. They also concluded that the main motivation for stimulant misuse/abuse is a desire to improve academic outcomes. When they explored the psychological factors associated with stimulant misuse, the researchers identified three relevant considerations: a personal history of ADHD, involvement in problematic marijuana/cannabis intake and involvement in problematic alcohol intake. Other factors contributing to a pattern of stimulant misuse include general intake of other substances, relatively poor academic performance and membership in a fraternity or sorority. Most college students obtain improperly consumed stimulants from someone they know who has a legitimate prescription.

The study’s authors note that the accuracy of their conclusions is hampered by the lack of a uniform definition for stimulant misuse in the studies under consideration, as well as by a lack of consistently applied screening tools for misuse. They point toward a need for additional research focused on the underlying motivations for stimulant misuse/abuse on college campuses, as well as research focused on improved methods of combating misuse/abuse.

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