The War on Drugs in the United States has taken a twisted turn beyond street drugs like heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. In fact, it has shifted from street corners to pharmacies and doctor offices. The pharmaceutical industry is booming and we are being faced with doctors overprescribing prescription drugs as well as the rise of abuse among young adults without prescriptions. According to The Office of National Drug Control Policy and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, aside from marijuana, prescription medications have become the most common drug choice for young adults.
Why Prescription Drugs?
There are multiple reasons why Millennials, particularly college students, are choosing to use prescription medications. Stimulants like Adderall, Ritalin and Concerta are used to pull all-nighters, maintain focus in class, enhance athletic performance and suppress appetites. On the other side of the spectrum, depressants such as Xanax, Vicodin and Klonopin are used to reduce stress, ease nervousness in social scenes, and to simply feel good and forget about daily problems.
Another reason why young adults are turning to prescription drugs is because of the notion that they are safer than illicit street drugs. Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate prescriptions, many people feel it is acceptable to use these drugs, and would rather associate a negative stigma towards the indulgence of hard drugs. However, most of the abused prescription drugs are in fact narcotics.
What’s the Big Deal?
Prescription drug users may find it shocking to learn that overdoses involving painkillers take the lives of more Americans than cases involving cocaine and heroin combined. According to The Clinton Foundation’s research, in the last 20 years the consumption of prescription stimulants increased from 5 million to 45 million. Even more distressing, the spending on prescription medications has increased a mind-blowing $200 billion in just two decades.
With all these prescription drugs circulating, it’s much easier for people without prescriptions to get their hands on them. Talk About RX, a non-profit organization that aims to raise awareness about prescription drug abuse among college students, reveals that according to various studies, about 90 percent of students are able to access stimulants from peers.
Research has also shown that students who take prescription drugs for non-medical reasons are at least five times more likely to develop a problem with drug addiction than those who don’t. Many of these prescription drug users are also binge drinkers, which exacerbates the issue. If certain combinations of the two are abused, the results can be lethal.
Recent studies suggest that around 57 percent of patients with mental health problems are being treated without any form of psychotherapy — simply diagnosed and sent away with pill bottles to “fix” the problem. However, many patients are unaware of the physical and mental affects of the medications, and in many cases, the root of the problem is left untreated and a dependency on prescription medicines is created.
Sheila Schapira, a Psychiatric Nurse who has worked at Four Winds Hospital for over 30 years, tells MiLLENNiAL that the problem, although promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, is largely perpetuated between doctors and insurance companies. “It’s a vicious cycle. If a patient is an inpatient and their medication isn’t being played around with and raised or lowered, then the insurance company can refuse to cover it. Then, if a patient is in and not paying for medication, the patient can be discharged.” She says that it’s almost as if the doctors and insurance companies are working together, corrupting the medical system and making a mess of it.
She notes that every time a patient comes in for psychiatric help, it’s taking longer to stabilize the patient. Sheila also stresses that, “many long-term chronically mentally ill patients don’t have a voice. They’re overprescribed instead of being taught behavioral therapy, so any shot at true recovery is destroyed.” She says that most patients get tolerances to their medications and then just continuously go up in dosage.
A Real-Life Struggle and Recovery
Jessica Gottlieb, a 21-year-old college student pursuing a degree in Social Work, was a victim of over-prescription. To treat her symptoms of anxiety, depression, and trouble focusing, Jessica was prescribed high daily doses of Selexa, Xanax and Adderall.
“I was so reliant on the pills,” she tells MiLLENNiAL. “It was horrible feeling like I couldn’t do anything without them.”
Jessica recounts feeling on edge all the time as well as a constant need to be taking medication to make her feel a certain way: “If I wanted to be productive for the day — Adderall. If I wanted to relax and get sleep — Xanax. I wasn’t taking my anti-depressants correctly because I had so much other medication. My mind was all over the place.”
Jessica reveals that the transition off the drugs was much easier than she expected. “When I found out I was overprescribed, I was relieved, but I was upset. My life could’ve been ruined. When my new doctor looked through my files and saw the amount of medication I’d been on, she was appalled. I told her I just wanted to feel normal again. I really do feel so much better now that I’m being treated properly.”
Jessica is one of many patients who are overprescribed. This issue not only inhibits the patient’s ability to form a strong, healthy mindset to truly recover, but can actually create a dependency on, or even an addiction to the prescription medications. This then turns into a relentless cycle of feeling mentally unstable and finding solace in a pill bottle.
What Do We Do?
We have to stay aware of this growing issue and realize that the answer to our problems isn’t always available at the nearest pharmacy.
In order to stay in business, drug companies have to continue selling drugs, which leads to the incentive to invent new drugs for anything that’s possible to be marketed as a disorder. Normal emotional processes, such as coping with the death of a loved one or going through female menopause are now becoming reasons for prescriptions.
If you truly do need medicine for mental health issues, make sure that your doctor is providing the best care possible and the right dosage for you. Have regular check-ups in order to get reassessed for medication instead of just automatically getting a prescription filled. Be smart and conscious of the affects the medicine may be having on your mental state. Make sure that you’re aware of the root of your psychological problem and that it’s being treated with therapy or other healthy alternatives in addition to medicine.
If you’re a user of prescription drugs without true medical need, think twice. Make sure you get eight hours of sleep and grab a cup of coffee before heading to the library instead of popping an Adderall. Find consolation in your friends and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s when you’re feeling down instead of looking for a Xanax.
We have to remember that we’re human. We can’t depend on prescription drugs to numb our pain or turn us into “superhumans” that can stay up for days on end doing work. We need to feel sometimes, even if it’s not always rainbows and butterflies.