Survey Finds Risky Opioid Use Among College-Age Youth, With Limited Knowledge of the Danger or Where to Get Help

Findings consistent among respondents who have attended college and those who haven’t

A survey of almost 1,200 college-age youth from around the country found that almost 16 percent report having used pain pills not prescribed to them at some point in their life, while over 37 percent said they would not know where to go for help in the event of an overdose.

The survey, commissioned by the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy and The Christie Foundation, asked youth about their perceptions and use of opioids.  It found that prescription pain medications are readily accessible, and despite growing concern about the nation’s opioid crisis, young people on and off America’s campuses still do not appreciate the deadly dangers of such drugs.

The data was unveiled at a Capitol Hill symposium held today for Members of Congress, their staff, Administration officials and the public.

“Prescription pain pills are similar to having heroin in the medicine cabinet,” said Marvin D. Seppala, M.D., chief medical officer of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the nation’s leading nonprofit addiction treatment organization.

“It’s clear from this survey and from our organization’s experience that young people don’t fully grasp the dangers of these highly addictive and lethal substances,” he said, pointing out that opioids, the class of drugs that includes prescription pain medications and heroin, all have similar effects on the mind and body. “Young people get these drugs for legitimate reasons in many cases, but their availability feeds into a culture of risk-taking that puts our young people’s still-developing brains in danger.”

The use and misuse of opioid medications and heroin have escalated to crisis levels throughout the American population. Deaths from drug overdose now outnumber those caused by car accidents, with an average of 110 overdose deaths per day and more than half of those involving opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

According to the survey, college campuses are clearly not immune.

“Notably, the survey found very little difference in the responses among those who went to college and those who didn’t,” said Nick Motu, Vice President of the Institute for Recovery Advocacy. “These are equal opportunity destroyers, and even in those places where education takes place every day, we need to ramp up the education around opioids.”

“The death toll from opioids is rising among young people,” said Frederick Chicos, founder of The Christie Foundation.  “The Christie Foundation has accepted the challenge to inform and educate college and university leaders that they need to publicly discuss the dangers of opioids on their campuses and work together to find solutions that will save this generation from the crisis the CDC calls a national epidemic.”

Among the findings of the survey, conducted by Q Market Research of Minnesota, are:

  • Almost 16 percent said they have used pain pills not prescribed to them at some point in their lifetime
  • This number is higher – 22.5 percent – among those who are or were in intercollegiate sports.
  • Young adults say opioids are easy to get
  • A third of respondents (32.7 percent) said prescription pain pills are “easy” to acquire, with half (49.5 percent) saying they could get them within 24 hours. An even higher percentage (34 percent) of college students said pills were “easy” to acquire. The easiest source: parent’s or friend’s medicine cabinets.
  • Despite some knowledge of danger around prescription pain medication, many young people do not realize how similar such medications are to heroin
  • While the vast majority (86.6 percent) know certain pain medications are addictive, almost 60 percent said they thought prescription pain medicine was less risky than heroin. This number was even higher – at 63 percent – among respondents who went to college. In addition, 11 percent of respondents said they have taken a pill without knowing what it was.
  • Too many don’t know where to turn for help for themselves or a friend
  • Even though almost one-third (30.8 percent) said they know of someone who has overdosed on prescribed pain medication or heroin, 37.2 percent said they would not know where to go for help if they, or someone they know, experienced an overdose. This percentage was identical among those who have attended college and those who haven’t.
  • One in 10 respondents was currently taking a pain medication prescribed to them
  • Of those, 29 percent said they had experienced problems as a result of their use and about one-fifth (20.2 percent) reported using the pills in excess of the dose prescribed.
  • Many report getting prescriptions they never used
  • Some 14 percent on average, depending on the substance prescribed, said they have been prescribed pain medications they did not use at all, contributing to the excess supply in medicine cabinets.

At the Capitol Hill event, which featured remarks by several Members of Congress and a variety of other speakers, the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy recommended a seven-point action plan for college campuses, communities and policy makers:

  1. Education for students, faculty and community members on the dangers of opioids and available resources for help
  2. Addiction-related curricula in medical, pharmaceutical and dental schools
  3. Prudent prescribing of pain medications by student health centers and youth-focused medical professionals
  4. Naloxone, the antidote to opioid overdose, readily available to campus police and other first responders and visible to students, with no repercussions for those who call for help
  5. Student health centers equipped to provide and widely promote screening and intervention services
  6. Sober housing on every campus
  7. Student recovery communities on every campus, supported visibly by administration

Motu also pointed out that Congress is considering a number of opioid-related bills, including the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, which would make funding available to states and local governments to expand drug treatment, prevention and recovery efforts, including initiatives like student recovery and national education programs.

Working together, we can address the opioid crisis where it starts – among young people,” Motu said. “Working together, we can prevent more deaths. And working together, we can get college campuses and communities the help and support they need.”

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