Dr. Amelia Arria, director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development (CYAHD) and associate professor of behavioral and community health in the University of Maryland School of Public Health, is part of a team that received a U01 grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to study and curtail the nonmedical use of prescription stimulants by college students. The research team will develop and evaluate an intervention, which includes correcting misperceptions about the prevalence of this behavior as well as the purported academic benefits.
Research has shown that this type of drug use is not as widespread as students think. Past research shows that college students overestimate how common the nonmedical use of stimulants is amongst their peers, with many estimating that 70 percent of college students misuse stimulants. Previous research by CYAHD found that about 30 percent of students have taken prescription stimulants nonmedically at least once during their college career.
“The nonmedical use of prescription stimulants is a serious problem. In addition to the risk for addiction, we know that it signals that there may be potentially serious drug use patterns,” explained Dr. Arria. Research has shown that use of stimulants nonmedically is not associated with improvements in academic performance. “The intervention is designed to get students to realize that nonmedical prescription drug use is not normative and to connect the dots between their use of drugs and alcohol and their academic decline,” Dr. Arria said.
Dr. Arria is the primary investigator at the Maryland campus on this multiple-PI research project, which is being carried out in collaboration with the University of Washington and the University at Albany. Her longitudinal College Life Study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has already provided a great deal of insight into college students’ health-related behaviors, including illicit drug use, problematic drinking, and nonmedical use of prescription drugs, among other risk-taking behaviors.
“Some students misuse prescription stimulants because they think it is going to increase their academic performance, but using stimulants nonmedically is not associated with academic improvement,” Dr. Arria said. “Often, students who are struggling academically take prescription stimulants to try to get themselves back on track, but their academic difficulties may be related to the use of other drugs and alcohol. Some studies show that 90 percent of prescription stimulant users without a prescription are either currently using or have a history of using other drugs.”
Independent of any other substance use, the nonmedical use of prescription stimulants carries other risks, including its illegal nature, the possibility of contraindications that make stimulant use dangerous, and the risk of addiction.
“College students want to do well and excessive drinking and drug use is a barrier to success. At this stage, it’s possible to change those behaviors,” Dr. Arria said.