Prescription drug epidemic on the rise
Part 1 of 2
Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 01:12
A final looming five hours in the future, Miami student Alex tries to surrender to his studying. But pages of textbook and notes splayed on his desk provide nothing more than anxiety for him and his reeling mind. He scratches his neck, looks to the ceiling and opens the bottom drawer of his desk. There he finds his kind of sanctuary, his escape.
He reaches over and selects two: Xanax and Adderall pills fall to his palm, and make a swift journey to his mouth, down his throat and settling in his belly. With a sigh, he feels the calming effects within moments.
Not long ago, this was more than just a habit for Alex, whose name has been changed to protect patient confidentiality. This was an addiction. An addiction that he now treats each month.
His addiction is reflective of an alarming, but little-known trend.
In the United States, the abuse of prescription drugs now exceeds the abuse of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy combined, according to Generation Rx Initiative, which is a preventive program instituted by the Ohio State University College of Pharmacy. Additionally, according to a study conducted by Fox News in 2013, 20 percent of high school graduates have admitted to abusing a prescription drug for a non-medical reason.
This is a trend no doubt, but Dr. Joshua Hersh, board certified psychiatrist at SCS, believes it could be more.
“Prescription drug abuse is becoming an epidemic,” Hersh said.
A High Dose
According to Hersh, prescription drug abuse can be defined and identified when a user does one or more of the following: takes prescription medication without a prescription; takes more medication than prescribed; takes drugs in non-recommended ways, such as through the nose; sells or shares medication with others; or obtains drugs from several different doctors.
All of these misuses of prescription drugs — which can be both illicit and life threatening — are present on Miami’s campus.
A study conducted by The Ohio State University of 5,000 college students found 9.2 percent used prescription opiates at least once a year, 5.1 percent used sedatives at least once a year and 4.4 percent used stimulants at least once a year. Hersh believes these statistics accurately reflect how Miami student use prescription drugs.
In 2009, Miami participated in a Healthy Minds Study, an annual survey-based study examining mental health and related issues. The study surveyed about 350 students Miami students. The results indicated that 18 percent of students are prescribed medication and 4 percent use psycho stimulants without a prescription, mirroring Ohio State’s trends.
Hersh said he treats a few of these students each year at the SCS.
“I probably see each year, 10 to 20 students who come in particularly to see me because they have a problem with prescription drugs of some sort,” Hersh said.
That number does not reflect students who abuse and refuse to seek ongoing help, he notes.
“Those do not account for the ones who don’t acknowledge they have a problem,” Hersh said. “There is a number of students who aren’t ready to deal with their problem in appropriate ways. They usually only come in for one or two sessions, because they are not ready to address the problem further.”
Alex, now in recovery, remembers the impressive assortment of drugs he once used.
“I used pretty much everything,” he said. “Adderall, Ambien, Xanax. Klonopon, Percocet, Morphine, Suboxone, Ketamine and Opine. Now I only use Xanax once in awhile.”
He used each drug, he said, for a different purpose.
“Adderall helps me study,” he said. “The benzos chilled me out and helped my anxiety and the opiates made me feel great and forget about my problems.”
According to Hersh, three general classes of addictive prescription drugs exist: opiates, stimulants and sedatives, which are also known as benzodiazepines or “benzos.”
Common opiate brands include Percocet, Oxycontin and Vicodin. Hersh said these drugs are primarily prescribed for pain, but are commonly misused for pain, anxiety and insomnia.
Another recovering Miami user in treatment, Tyler, whose name has also been changed to protect patient confidentiality, said he used prescription opiates like Oxycontin to numb painful emotions.
“Pain killers take you away from yourself and keep emotion at bay,” Tyler said. “After tragedies in my life, I turned to these drugs for comfort.”
Prescription stimulants, Hersh said, are traditionally prescribed for learning disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and are commonly misused for weight loss and sleep disorders. Popular stimulants include Adderall and Ritalin.
Senior Aimee Madrigrano uses Adderall to treat ADD.
“I am prescribed Adderall because they previously diagnosed me with depression and had me on things for that. Then I went to a new therapist and she figured out that I actually was suffering from ADD,” she said.
Hersh explained that prescription benzos, such as Xanax, Klonopin, Ambien and Ketamine, are prescribed to calm anxiety and treat insomnia.
“These drugs make you feel pretty damn good so you want to keep using them,” Alex said.