Stressed Students Abuse Painkillers to Cope

By Valerie Tejeda 06/15/12

College students frequently share prescriptions and try to self-medicate for stress and depression.

Stress can make self-medication tempting.
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Painkiller abuse on campus is increasingly linked with depression and suicide risk among college students, a new study reveals. Western Illinois University Department of Health Sciences Assistant Professor Amanda Divin and her colleague Keith Zullig surveyed 26,600 randomly-selected college students from 40 US campuses. They found that 13% of the students who used non-medical prescription drugs also had feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts, and that female students were particularly vulnerable. The study—which will be published in the Addictive Behaviors journal in August—suggests that students may be self-medicating distress caused by study pressures or new-found independence with painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin. “I first got into taking painkillers after I got depressed when I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do with my life and felt like I had no direction,” one female college student tells The Fix. “Those pills were the only thing that got me through some hard times, and they were very easy to find.”

“I saw many of my friends taking painkillers like me, and I’ll be honest, those were some dark times,” she continues. “I think that if depression and things like that were more openly talked about, it could help students seek help instead of taking drugs.” Many college campuses do offer counseling for depression, and some are even starting to offer rehabilitation and “sober houses” for addicts. But despite such resources, many students continue to self-medicate."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," says Divin. "Our study is just one of the many first steps in exploring the relationship between non-medical prescription drug use and mental health." Our student source is now in better shape: “I’m glad I’m not taking Vicodin every day to deal with my depression like I used to,” she says. “Now, I’m on antidepressants...but I know many other students that aren’t that should be.”

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Entertainment journalist and author Valerie Tejeda spends her days reporting on books, television, and all things pertaining to pop culture, and spends her nights writing novels for teens. Her stories have appeared on a variety of different publications, including but not limited to: VanityFair, MTV, The Huffington Post, TeenVogue, She Knows, Latina, The Fix,, Cosmopolitan, and more. You can find Valerie on Linkedin and Twitter.