Prescription Stimulant Abuse

Why are prescription stimulants so widely abused and what can be done about it? To find out, we talked with Sean Clarkin, Director of Programs at the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

Why kids abuse prescription drugs and what can be done.

When talking with their children about substance abuse, many parents assume that only illegal drugs are a threat. The truth is that more kids abuse prescription drugs than street drugs like cocaine or heroin.

According to a recent study sponsored by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, 20 percent of college students abuse prescription stimulants, and a staggering 50 percent of young adults admit to having abused the drugs to improve academic performance.

Why are prescription stimulants so widely abused and what can be done about it? To find out, we talked with Sean Clarkin, Director of Programs at the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

Why are prescription stimulants prescribed?

Prescription stimulants – like Ritalin and Adderall – are prescribed for health conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sleep disorders or, sometimes, depression. When legitimately prescribed, stimulants can help people manage these disorders.

Why did you survey college age students and young adults, in particular, on prescription stimulants?

We decided to research college-age individuals because that’s where stimulant misuse behavior is most rampant. Adderall is one of the most abused substances on college campuses. Because of this normalized behavior, we’re better able to efficiently investigate and understand the dynamics surrounding this issue. We also included non-college students as well to quantify the effect of higher education.

What surprised you about these findings?

The fact that one in five college students reported abusing prescription stimulants at least once was surprising to us. This is a larger number than we anticipated. The other shocking revelation is how frequently young people are sharing ADHD medicine, and how easy these pills are to obtain. We found that:

  • 56 percent indicated that it is easy to obtain prescription stimulants that were not prescribed to them;

  • 58 percent said they have friends who abuse prescription stimulants;

  • 28 percent who have been legally prescribed prescription stimulants share their medicine with friends;

  • Of these, 52 percent also report being pressured by their friends into sharing or selling their prescription stimulants.

These facts present an opportunity for parents and health care professionals to play a pivotal role in helping students better manage their time and the commitments that are stressing them out. And most importantly, they can and should counsel young people who have been legitimately prescribed medication for ADHD not to compromise their own health by sharing or selling those medications.

Why are young people abusing stimulants?

The survey results told us that college students are misusing and abusing prescription stimulants in a misguided effort to manage their lives because they are burning the candle at both ends – feeling the need to perform better and achieve their academic and social goals:

  • 50 percent reported abusing prescription stimulants to study or improve academic performance;

  • 41 percent said they misuse or abuse them to stay awake;

  • 24 percent misuse or abuse prescription stimulants to improve work performance at a job.

These numbers tell us that many teens and young adults simply aren’t equipped with the right skills to manage these stressors on their own, without the use of prescription stimulants.

Is there a typical profile of a young adult who may abuse prescription stimulants?

Yes. Based on our research, the most typical stimulant misuser is male; a college sophomore or older; more likely to have a full-time job and less likely to receive financial support from his parents; more likely to be in a relationship and very social – the kind of person who likes being the center of attention. We also found that misusers/abusers are more likely to have trouble with their work/life balance, and are likely to be influenced by friends.

What can parents do to prevent the abuse of stimulants by their kids?

First, the findings showed us that parents should work to help kids better manage their stress and improve time management skills. To the extent possible, they should understand the things that are stressing their kids out, and work together with their child to address those issues in healthy ways.

It’s vital that parents talk to their kids about the issue of medicine abuse. As with any prescription drug, it’s important to monitor and safeguard the medicines you have at home, and to safely dispose of any unwanted, unused or expired medicine. If you or your child has been prescribed prescription stimulants, it’s important that only the person prescribed is taking them, and that he/she is following instructions for proper use.

What can companies like CVS Health do to help address this problem?

CVS Health is contributing to the fight against prescription drug abuse in a number of ways. For example, your work with state and federal lawmakers is helping advance legislation to improve monitoring and prescribing practices for controlled substances. In addition, CVS Pharmacy’s Medication Disposal for Safer Communities Program is helping to keep unwanted medications out of the hands of those who were not prescribed them. And perhaps most important, pharmacists can educate parents and kids on the safe use of prescription stimulants and their potential for abuse.

To find prescription drug abuse resources and information, visit the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.