Painkiller Abuse in Young Women: A Dangerous Trend

Editor’s Note: Last week, we blogged about non-medical prescription drug use (NMPDU) and a study that linked it to depression in college students. This week, we follow up with one of the study’s coauthors, Dr. Amanda Divin, from Western Illinois University. In the study, Dr. Divin found that young women were more likely to abuse painkillers than young men. We wanted to learn more.

PAR: Why might females be more likely than males to use painkillers if they were feeling hopeless, sad, depressed, or suicidal?

Dr. Divin: Well, there are lots of reasons. First, the properties of opioid painkillers are that they block pain reception in the brain but also increase release of dopamine in the brain which results in euphoria. So the pharmacological properties of painkillers make them attractive to people who may be feeling the blahs of depression or other depressive symptoms.

Second, research indicates that females have greater exposure to prescription drugs with addictive potential (e.g., opioid painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs) and are more likely to be prescribed a drug than males. If you look at the literature, and even empirical evidence, it’s very common for a woman to go to a doctor complaining of symptoms, and she is given a prescription for a painkiller or sedative, whereas a male may be given different advice or treatment.

Third, women are more likely to suffer from depression. Their physiology also makes them more likely to become addicted to painkillers (females actually need a lower dose of opioids than males do to experience the same amount of painkilling effects).

If you put all those things together, it almost seems like common sense that females are more likely to self-medicate. I do want to point out, however, there have been other studies which have found the opposite—that it’s males [who are more likely to self-medicate]. There is still a lot of research and replication that needs to be done.

PAR: Why did you decide to conduct this study? How did it affect you personally?

Dr. Divin: I’m a professor, so I work with college students every day. It’s not at all uncommon that a student will come talk to me about their problems. It’s very common that prescription drug use or depression/suicidal thoughts are among those problems. In talking with my colleague Keith Zullig [from West Virginia University], who has done a lot of research on prescription drugs, we decided this was an area that really needed to be investigated. This study personally affected me in a couple of ways: I read just about every single article that had ever been printed regarding prescription drug use—and wow, did this open my eyes to what a commonplace, everyday sort of thing NMPDU is, how easy it is to acquire prescription drugs, and just how socially acceptable it has become. Both the NMPDU and suicide literature also opened my eyes to the stress college students are under nowadays and how stress, depression, and NMPDU are all connected. I will say some of the scariest things I learned from doing this research are about the very dangerous side effects and risks that prescription drugs carry.

PAR: What advice would you give to college students using non-medical prescription drugs?

Dr. Divin: My best advice would include a few things:

(1) If you’re feeling depressed, the solution isn’t going to be found in a pill bottle. NMPDU only offers a temporary solution to a very real and pervasive problem. The best thing to do is go see a professional. On most college campuses, seeing a doctor or mental health professional is free! In the final analysis, you are just temporally postponing the problem and possibly creating others in the process.

(2) Prescription drugs carry very real and dangerous side effects. Just because they were approved by the FDA doesn’t mean you’re not going to have an adverse or deadly reaction.

(3) If you are currently taking several different prescription drugs non-medically, be very careful of the possible drug interactions.

(4) There is no shame in admitting you have a problem and need help.

 

This interview was conducted by Grace Gardner, a recent graduate from the University of South Florida and an editorial assistant in the Production Department at PAR.

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