You probably had the drug and alcohol talk with your college kids years ago. You spent their teen years trying to steer them away from the seedy friends and drug pushers. But now that they’re away at college, with less supervision and more freedom, your kids could fall into a drug habit without you there to notice.
And the biggest risk these days doesn’t come from those notorious illegal drugs you might have warned them about — crack, speed, heroin, meth, mushrooms — but from the pills sitting conveniently inside your medicine cabinet.
Nearly 7 million Americans are abusing prescription drugs, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — more than the number who are abusing cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, Ecstasy, and inhalants, combined. Prescription drug abuse has skyrocketed by 80 percent in just six years: Prescription meds are now more popular than every other drug except marijuana, and opiate painkillers now cause more deaths from overdose than both cocaine and heroin put together.
As a college parent who isn’t living under the same roof as your kids anymore, it’s easy to feel helpless, too far removed to know what’s going on with them. But here are some basic facts and warning signs you can stay aware of, even long-distance, that might be your clues to a potential prescription drug problem developing with your kids away from home.
The New Drugs of Choice
Teens and young adults tend to be drawn to prescription drugs for two reasons:
- 40% of teens (and almost the same percentage of parents) believe that prescription drugs are safer than illegal street drugs.
- Prescription drugs are often easy to obtain from friends and family — either simply by asking or by stealing, unnoticed, from a medicine cabinet — and from medical professionals, usually by lying about symptoms and by frequently switching physicians. It’s especially easy for out-of-state college students to go to a doctor they’ve never visited before without seeming suspicious or raising any questions.
The most commonly abused prescription drugs include painkillers like Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, and Tylenol with codeine; anti-anxiety medications and muscle relaxants like Paxil, Xanax, Valium, and Soma; sleeping pills like Ambien; and stimulants (used to treat ADHD — attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) like Adderall, Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Concerta; all of which are either taken in pill form at higher-than-prescribed doses or crushed up and snorted.
Students Popping Brainpower Pills
Colleges and universities, in particular, have become hotbeds for Adderall and Ritalin abuse. As many as one in five college students has illegally used one of the two drugs, according to a 2002 study conducted by the University of Wisconsin.
Used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, Adderall and Ritalin in the average student will reduce fatigue, enhance short-term memory, and increase alertness, focus, concentration, and mental-processing speed. College students will use Adderall and Ritalin to stay up days at a time, to help them write more pages, complete assignments faster, and read for longer stretches, and to help them cram and retain last-minute information for exams — it’s the next turbo-charged step up from caffeine and energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster.
Adderall, a blend of four different amphetamines, is frighteningly easy to get addicted to, and it can prove especially irresistible to the most ambitious, hardest-working students, as journalist Joshua Foer reveals in his piece for Slate.com about his self-experiment with Adderall (“The Adderall Me: My Romance With ADHD Meds,” May 10, 2005).
Adderall is like “a cognitive steroid,” writes Foer. “[G]ym rats have steroids, and overachievers have Adderall.”
Recognizing the Warning Signs
In general, physicians tell families to look for dramatic changes in mood or behavior in their children as a sign of drug abuse. But when your kids are in college, generic changes like these can be hard to differentiate from just overall college stress.
Here are some more specific signals you can try to pick up on over the phone when you’re checking in:
- Excessive energy
- Excessive drowsiness
- Inability to concentrate
- Lowered inhibitions
- Increased secrecy
- Dramatic and compelling but vague complaints
You can also look for more concrete danger signs when your kids come back for Thanksgiving or winter break. Of course, if you suspect a problem with your kids before then, you may want to drive or fly out to see them, and be on the lookout for physical red flags:
- Constricted or dilated pupils
- Flushed face and neck
- Slowed breathing
- Lowered blood pressure
- Sensory alteration
Seeing these symptoms in your child doesn’t necessarily mean he or she has a drug problem; these signs could be indicators of a variety of mental, emotional, physical, or stress-related problems. But in light of the much-publicized prescription-drug-related death of actor Heath Ledger earlier this year, these aren’t signs to be taken lightly.
Prescription drug addiction is a serious and dangerous drug problem and may need to be addressed by a medical professional or require professional rehabilitation or detoxification treatment.
If you’re concerned about a potential prescription drug habit in one of your college kids, contact the school health center and ask to speak to a staff counselor about what steps to take next.
For more information on prescription drug abuse, visit www.prescription-drug-abuse.org.