CORVALLIS, Ore. — College students who misuse prescription stimulants or opioids often experience negative mental health and academic outcomes even if they don’t use other illicit drugs, a recent Oregon State University study found.

In this case, “misuse” means using a prescription that was not prescribed to that student.

Compared with college students who abstain from illicit drug use altogether, students who misuse prescription stimulants or opioids are more likely to report negative outcomes in measures of anxiety, depression, academic difficulty and chronic pain, as well as higher rates of cannabis, nicotine and heavy alcohol use, the study found.

While these findings may not be surprising, lead author David Kerr said they help demonstrate that misuse of prescription drugs falls on a broader spectrum of drug use.  

“It does suggest that using someone else’s prescription drug is not just a one-off behavior, because college students who have misused a stimulant or opioid are distinguishable from those who haven’t, on outcomes we considered,” said Kerr, a psychology professor in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts. “Looking at it another way, prescription drug misusers were more similar to illicit drug users than they were to non-users.”

The study, published earlier this summer in the Journal of American College Health, relied on data from the 2015-16 National College Health Assessment, which contains self-reported measures of recent drug, alcohol and nicotine use for nearly 80,000 students ages 18-24 from four-year colleges and universities nationwide. The survey also asks students about mental health issues and academic status.

Those who only misuse prescription stimulants, such as Adderall, showed similar levels to illicit drug users when it came to heavy alcohol use, anxiety, depressive symptoms and diagnosis of ADHD. Stimulant-misusing students actually fared worse in terms of academic difficulty than students who only used illicit drugs, which suggests that students without ADHD might use a friend’s prescription stimulant in the hopes that it will give them an academic boost, Kerr said.

Those who only misuse prescription opioids, such as OxyContin, reported similar levels to illicit drug users on measures of depressive symptoms, anxiety and difficulty with academics. Prescription opioid users were slightly more likely to report chronic pain than illicit drug users, which may suggest some students use another person’s prescription opioid for pain relief, researchers said.

On most measures, students who used both prescription and illicit drugs reported worse outcomes than students who only misused one of these prescription drugs.

In analyzing the demographics of people who completed the survey, researchers found that students living in fraternities and sororities were overrepresented in the group of prescription stimulant misusers. Kerr speculated that there may be a culture of greater availability and sharing of stimulants in Greek houses.

Moving forward, Kerr said one lesson from this study is the need for targeted drug-use education efforts.

“We need to get the message to students in need that this is not going to be a helpful way to cope with poor grades or really anything else,” he said. “If you think you have ADHD, you should get assessed; if you think medication might be helpful, you should work with a health care provider on that. Don’t try to be your own pharmacist.”

Misusing prescription stimulants can be dangerous for people with heart arrhythmias or other conditions, while opioids are highly addictive and can also pose serious health risks when combined with other substances like alcohol.

“We also need to reach students or others who do have a prescription and may be trying to help by sharing it with someone else,” Kerr said. “For example, pharmacists and doctors could caution patients against thinking they’re doing their friends a favor by giving them spare drugs.”

Associate professor Harold Bae from OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences was co-author, along with Veronica Cole from Wake Forest University and Andrea Hussong from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

College of Liberal Arts

About the OSU College of Liberal Arts: The College of Liberal Arts encompasses seven distinct schools, as well as several interdisciplinary initiatives, that focus on humanities, social sciences, and fine and performing arts. Curriculum developed by the college’s nationally and internationally-renowned faculty prepares students to approach the complex problems of the world ethically and thoughtfully, contributing to a student's academic foundation and helping to build real-world skills for a 21st century career and a purposeful life.

Story By: 

Molly Rosbach, [email protected]


David Kerr, [email protected]; Harold Bae, [email protected]

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