Signs depicting the dangers of alcohol cover the University of Minnesota campus, but the risks of prescription drug abuse are rarely advertised.
While most of the people taking prescription medications likely do so responsibly, illegal use and over-prescription are possible, and a problem for some on campus, students say.
Nearly 70 percent of Americans are on prescription medication and 20 percent are taking five or more medications, according to a study the Mayo Clinic released last month that looked at the habits of people living in Olmstead County, Minn.
The study, which researchers say is representative of the nation because of its high response rate, showed antidepressants are one of the most common prescriptions.
At the college level, 12 percent of Minnesota students said they were taking medication for depression last year, according to Boynton Health Service’s 2012 College Student Health Survey.
“[Depression is] like the common cold of the mental health world,” said Jerry Shih, assistant director of University Counseling and Consulting Services. “It varies in severity from mild, to really severe and interfering with daily function.”
The study identified opiates, or strong painkillers, as another common prescription with major side effects if people overmedicate. They are usually prescribed to patients who have broken bones or are recovering from surgery, for example.
“It’s very useful, but it can be very, very addictive,” said pharmacology professor Ping-Yee Law.
Law said recreational use is the biggest problem with opiates, because a doctor can’t prove how much pain a patient is feeling; rather, they have to rely on what the patient says.
“If you take an X-ray and see a mild inflammation in the spine, you can always say, ‘I’m in really severe pain,’ and no one can tell how extensive it is,” he said.
Less than 1 percent of students who responded to the Boynton survey said they used opiates illegally.
But Law said abuse of prescription drugs is more common than that, especially considering new ways to access them.
“Go to the Internet,” he said, “and you can find out how many doctors will write you a prescription.”
Jean Moon, assistant pharmacy professor, said it can be difficult to tell whether patients are overmedicated if they are seeing multiple doctors.
“Unnecessary medication does come up,” she said. “When patients are seen by different specialists, there can be communication problems between doctors prescribing different medications.”
While most doctors are ethical, Shih said, a few will easily prescribe drugs.
Mitch McIntire, a math and computer science junior, said from what he’s seen, he doesn’t think prescription drug use is a problem on the University campus.
But Jessica Phillips, a senior and member of the Undergraduate Public Health Association, disagrees. She’s seen students admitted to the hospital for prescription drug overdoses on campus.
“It’s rarely ever talked about,” she said.
Students on prescriptions for chronic conditions might take more than they’re prescribed to deal with the added pressure of college, Phillips said. They also might share these prescriptions with their friends — students may use un-prescribed Adderall, for example, as a study aid.
“There’s a gray area for prescription drugs. Cocaine is clearly illegal,” she said. “Prescription drugs are more ambiguous.”