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Faculty Member's Study Shows Painkiller Abuse Linked to Depression, Suicide in College Students

June 11, 2012

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MACOMB, IL – Non-medical prescription drug use by college students is a growing trend on most campuses, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention. Due to this trend, Western Illinois University Department of Health Sciences Assistant Professor Amanda Divin and her colleague, Keith Zullig, an associate professor in the West Virginia University School of Public Health, recently conducted and published a study that explores non-medical prescription drug use and depressive symptoms in college students.

Divin and Zullig utilized data from the fall 2008 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA), a national research survey that addresses seven areas of health and behavior of college students, one of which is alcohol, tobacco and other drug use. The sample used for the study (from the ACHA-NCHA data) contained 26,600 randomly selected college students from 40 campuses in the U.S. The student respondents were asked about their non-medical prescription drug use (including painkillers, stimulants, sedatives and antidepressants) and mental health symptoms within the last year.

According to Divin's and Zullig's results, approximately 13 percent of the college-student respondents reported non-medical prescription drug use, with those who reported feeling hopeless, sad, depressed or considered suicide being significantly more likely to report non-medical use of any prescription drug. The results also showed this relationship was more pronounced for females who reported painkiller use. The study — which is titled, "The association between non-medical prescription drug use, depressive symptoms, and suicidality among college students" — will appear in the August 2012 issue of Addictive Behaviors: An International Journal.

"Because prescription drugs are tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and prescribed by a doctor, most people perceive them as 'safe' and don't see the harm in sharing with friends or family if they have a few extra pills left over," Divin explained. "Unfortunately, all drugs potentially have dangerous side effects. As our study demonstrates, use of prescription drugs—particularly painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycontin—is related to depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts and behaviors in college students. This is why use of such drugs need to be monitored by a doctor and why mental health outreach on college campuses is particularly important."

Divin and Zullig believe the results suggest that students are self-medicating their psychological distress with prescription medications.

"Considering how common prescription sharing is on college campuses and the prevalence of mental health issues during the college years, more investigation in this area is definitely warranted," Divin added. "Our study is just one of the many first steps in exploring the relationship between non-medical prescription drug use and mental health."

For more information about Divin's and Zullig's research, contact Divin at

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