Prescription medications play an essential role in healthcare in the United States. They can assist in healing and allow people who have been diagnosed with physical or emotional challenges lead more productive and longer lives. But any medication can also cause harm when used improperly. The misuse and abuse of prescription drugs has become a serious public health epidemic with an alarming price tag across the country.

The costs of prescription opioid misuse has risen substantially over the years. A 2007 study estimated that our nation spent $55.7 billion annually on prescription opioid misuse. A more recent analysis estimated that in 2013, this cost was $78.5 billion. With an increase of more than $20 billion per year over a six year period, it is likely that the costs have continued to climb to present day.

Well-known researchers in the field of prescription drug misuse found that among college students, there is an increase of 85.7% increase in prescription opioid misuse from the first year of college to the second. There is an abundance of research suggesting that the misuse of opioid drugs can transition to drug addiction, so it is a slippery slope for those who start misusing prescription drugs in young adulthood. A 2011 analysis of treatment center admissions data found that prescription pain relievers were the third most common primary substance for those who started using substances between the ages of 18-24, following heroin and alcohol.

Only a small percentage of college-age people who are classified as having a substance use disorder actually receive treatment. A report based on 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) data found that about 8% of the U.S. population needed substance use treatment in the past year. The percentage of people identified as needing substance use treatment was highest among college-age adults (aged 18 to 25). Nearly 15.5% of this population was classified as needing substance use treatment, yet just 7.7% of this age group actually received treatment in the past year. The perceived need of treatment was very low among the college-age adults who needed but did not receive substance use treatment – only 2.7% perceived a need for substance use treatment. The perceived need for treatment appears to be a large barrier to receiving treatment.

While the above findings on the need for treatment cover a wide range of substances, another report from NSDUH based on the same survey found that 5% of young adults aged 18 to 25 have misused prescription drugs in the past month. The chart below shows that pain relievers are the most frequently reported type of prescription drug this age group is misusing.

Past Month Misuse of Prescription Pain Relievers, Tranquilizers, Stimulants, and Sedatives (ages 18-25)

With all of the above in mind, what are the major components that strategies to address prescription drug misuse should cover? A prevention program should empower students with the skills and knowledge to make safe and healthy decisions about prescription medications. It should help students with prescriptions become safe and confident users of medications. A program that teaches students the impact that prescription drug misuse can have on their physical and mental health, their relationships and communities, and their future will put students on a path towards a healthy lifestyle. Given that the majority of students use prescription drugs appropriately, and support others doing the same, an evidence-based prevention program will correct misperceptions and dispel myths. Finally, a strong prevention program will give students the opportunity to practice how to support peers in their choices regarding the safe use of prescription drugs and, perhaps most importantly, learn how to seek assistance if they or a friend is experiencing a problem with prescription drugs.

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