Preventing Misuse of Prescription Medications

A message from the Student Health Service

Prescription medications such as narcotic pain relievers or medications used to treat anxiety or ADD are safe when used as prescribed, but can have safety and/or legal consequences if used inappropriately. Wake Forest Student Health Service has tips on how to talk to your son or daughter about safe keeping and use of prescription medications.

Why do students misuse prescription medications?

Stimulant medications such as Ritalin, Adderall and Vyvanse are believed by many students to enhance academic performance. Students who are under pressure to complete assignments and prepare for tests will use these medications to achieve better focus or to pull an “all-nighter”. Misuse of and pressure to share or sell stimulant medications tend to increase on college campuses during mid-term and final exam periods. Some students also mistakenly believe stimulant medications will increase their stamina and will use them to enhance athletic performance.

Stimulant, anti-anxiety medications (such as Xanax) and narcotic pain medications are also used recreationally to get high. Stimulants can be used to reduce the sedative effect of alcohol and allow users to drink more and for longer periods of time.

What are the risks of sharing, selling or misusing prescription medications?

Legal Consequences of Misuse – A recent survey of undergraduate students revealed that 54% of students prescribed stimulant medications by their doctor had been asked to sell, trade or give away their medication in the past year (McCabe et al, 2006). The pressure to “share” or sell medication can be high and saying no can be challenging. Most students are unaware of the potential legal consequences of these actions. These medications are classified as a Schedule II controlled substances by the federal government, which is the same class that both cocaine and meth fall under. Sharing, selling or the possession or use of prescription drugs that are not prescribed to you is illegal. Consequences can include fines, loss of federal financial aid and potentially imprisonment.

Health Consequences – Before prescribing a medication for their patients, medical providers assess the health history, list of current medications and medication allergies to assure the medication will be both safe and effective. A particular strength (dose) of medication is selected based on individual factors specific to a patient. Taking a medication not prescribed by your healthcare provider can be very dangerous. Controlled substances such as stimulants, anxiety medications and narcotics can lead to elevated blood pressure, slowed breathing heart attack, stroke, respiratory arrest, coma or death. These risks increase if the medications are taken in combination with alcohol, other drugs or by snorting or injecting them.

How can students stay safe? 

  1. Advise your student to not share information about the medications they are taking. If they are prescribed stimulants for ADD, anxiety medications or narcotics, they should keep this information private. This will reduce the likelihood that peers will ask your son or daughter to share or sell their medication.
  2. Keep these medications hidden and safe. If the medication is for long-term use, consider purchasing a lock box to store it safely to avoid theft.
  3. If a prescription medication is stolen, report the theft to campus police.
  4. Talk with your son/daughter about the risks of misuse- both health risk and potential legal (state and university) consequences.
  5. Dispel myths about the “benefits” of stimulant use. Most students believe that stimulant medications will enhance their academic performance. Studies have demonstrated that while stimulants can keep students awake longer and improve confidence, actual academic performance does not improve, and in some cases can worsen due to sleep deprivation and side effects.
  6. Keep the conversation going. Pressures and social climate can change over time. Take the opportunity when alone to ask about some of the pressures to use these substances and explore ways to avoid misuse.

Who can I speak with if I am really concerned? – The clinical staff in the University Counseling Center and Student Health Service can provide information about substance misuse resources both on and off campus.

Wake Forest University Counseling Center 336-758-5273

Wake Forest Student Health Service: 336-758-5218


Getting to the Root Causes

Understanding why college students misuse or abuse prescription drugs can help student leaders, parents, campus life administrators and advisors, coaches and health care providers ask the right questions and intervene early.

Prescription stimulants may be used by students as “study aids”— to increase energy, improve concentration, lower anxiety, boost their mood, and help them stay up all night cramming for exams. But unlike students who take these medications recreationally, to get a “high,” thrill seek or “fit in” socially, a student who uses a stimulant to help improve his or her concentration and academic performance probably doesn’t see their behavior as risky or illegal even though it is (Quintero et al, 2006).

Educating students about misuse and abuse is an important part of prevention   Students who take prescription sedatives, stimulants or pain relievers under the care of their healthcare professional must take steps to help prevent problems by:

Taking their medication as directed

Keeping it in a safe, dry and secure place (consider a lock box or somewhere that only you know about)

Not sharing these medications with anyone, regardless of the reason. (If a college roommate sprains his ankle and pleads for a Percocet, stay strong. Instead of “sharing” a pain reliever, make sure your friend sees a medical professional for care. Remember, it is illegal to take controlled substance if it is not prescribed for you.

Getting rid of old or unused medications properly. Visit the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) website at ConsumerUpdates/ucm10





To contact the Office of Family Engagement, please visit our contact page.

If Your Student Has a Problem

One of the best ways parents/families can help their students is to let them solve their own problems. Use the Stop, Drop, and Roll method when your student contacts you with a problem.  The flyer also lists contact information for serious concerns where family intervention might be appropriate.

Orientation 2017 slide shows

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