Students risk addiction and serious health problems as a result of self-medication to cope with stress. Photo by Roe Borunda / The Collegian
Students juggling their studies, multiple jobs and extracurricular activities may resort to prescription drug abuse in an attempt to cope.
Young people ages 15 to 24 is the fastest growing demographic of prescription drug abuse, according to the Lock It Up project.
The project, launched by the California Health Collaborative Organization, attempts to create awareness and prevent abuse, said project manager Marisol Zamora.
The main reason students abuse prescription drugs is the misconception that such drugs can help them perform better academically, Zamora said.
“They want to stay up late, for example, to write a term paper or to study,” Zamora said. “They say, ‘This is going to help me stay up late. This is going to help me excel on my exam.’ But in reality, they’re really just harming different parts of their body their brain, and essentially, they’re becoming dependent on the medication.”
John Fausone, a Fresno State student majoring in mathematics, said abusing prescription drugs is a dangerous way to try to improve school performance.
“If they need that much time to do their homework, they need to reassess their priorities, scale back how many classes they’re taking or scale back their working hours,” he said. “It’s not worth putting your health at risk just to knock out a few more units each semester.”
Students who abuse drugs are rarely aware of the dangerous side effects, Zamora said. Students assume that prescription drugs are safer than street drugs because they are prescribed by doctors, he added.
However, Zamora said these drugs are like a double-edged sword.
She said that prescribed medicines are safe and effective when used correctly, but when taken outside of a strict prescription order it can turn into something else.
Fausone said students are not weighing the consequences of their actions and may not be fully aware that they might be turning themselves into addicts.
“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen to me,’ just like people who drive drunk, who start smoking cigarettes or doing other addictive substances,” he said. “They think they are going to be the exception to the rule, but reality is usually never that way.”
Caitlin Sanchez, a Fresno State student majoring in biology, said she has heard of people abusing prescription drugs but she doesn’t consider it an option.
“I guess for other people, whatever helps them, but for me personally, I wouldn’t,” Sanchez said. “I think if you take it in moderation, you should be fine. If you overdo it, there are always consequences that you have to deal with.”
Zamora said the top three categories of drugs abused by students are stimulants, opioid analgesics and sedatives.
Examples of popular stimulants are Ritalin, Concerta and Adderal. These are medically used to treat children and teens with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“What the stimulants are doing, essentially, are speeding up your brain activity,” Zamora said. “It increase your alertness, energy and elevates blood pressure.”
Opioid analgesics like Vicodin, OxyContin and Methadone are typically used to help ease pain after surgery. The side effects are respiratory depression and slow and shallow breathing.
As for sedatives or tranquilizers, Zamora said the popular names are Valium, Xanax and Ativan, which are medically used to treat anxiety, panic attacks and sleep disorders. Abusing these medications can cause seizures.
Aside from these physical side effects, Zamora said one of the biggest consequences students are faced with is the risk of addiction and dependence on these drugs. When students become addicted, they might even overdose and die.
Students could gain access to these drugs by getting a prescription from a doctor for something else, she said.
“Let’s say they had severe pain and they went to the doctor and got Vicodin,” Zamora said. “They could either use the medication for what it was originally intended or they could learn that they can get a high out of that medication.”
Zamora explained that students who “get a high” would continuously return to their doctors to get refills despite finishing their prescribed treatment.
She said students could also buy or steal the drugs from family or friends. Some also resort to the black market and buy the drugs off the street.
Another method that some students resort to, Zamora said, is called “doctor shopping.” Doctor shopping is when students get prescribed for the same problems by different doctors in order to get the drugs.
“Basically they all go to one doctor and then they will go to another doctor,” Zamora said. “Although there are some systems in place to prevent it, there are still some people who get away with that.”
Zamora advises students to find other alternatives to deal with their stressful academic life. She suggested students be part of a study group and not procrastinate. Students should map out their time to prepare for exams.
As part of the Lock It Up project, there are peer education programs on campus, Zamora said. The volunteer peers are available to give students more information on drug abuse and where to seek help.
“The peer educators are already on campus, and they are available to answer any questions for students who need extra services or help,” Zamora said.
Zamora said she plans to have an organized town hall meeting on campus with a panel to talk about the issue. The panel will consist of law enforcers, pharmacists and people sharing first-hand experiences with prescription drug abuse.
For more information about the Lock It Up project, its services and how to get involved, visit www.healthcollaborative.org.