It started as a way to pack more into his days. A Yale junior, who asked to remain anonymous, began taking Ritalin when his friend offered him a bottle she had inherited from someone who had stopped taking his prescription.
He has been taking Ritalin “on and off” for just under a year now. And so far, so good — no consequences that he can detect, apart from the perks: increased mental alertness, improved memory, increased ability to concentrate for longer periods of time and heightened motivation. And if he had to choose whether to do it all over again, he said he would — undoubtedly.
“You just get a lot more done when you’re on them,” he said. “I’ve gotten so much more on top of things since I started taking them.”
This junior is just one of many college students at Yale who may be abusing prescription drugs, according to a recent poll conducted by the News — a phenomenon that experts at the Yale University Health Service representatives say is fueling a national trend.
The News’ poll — which was e-mailed to 850 undergraduates and received 341 responses — indicates that 82 percent of Yale students say that they are unconcerned by the prevalence of drug abuse on campus, while only 8 percent think it is a concerning issue.
Marijuana, which 85 percent of respondents said was the most prevalent drug on campus, outranked prescription drugs, which 12 percent said were most common, by a margin of over 70 percent. According to the poll, an overwhelming majority — 93 percent of students — think alcohol abuse is much more widespread on campus than drug abuse.
Still, 36 percent of students see drug use on campus once a week or more frequently, while only 31 percent reporting never having seen drug use. The remaining respondents reported seeing drug use, on average, on a monthly basis.
The poll was conducted from Friday, Feb. 1 to Sunday Feb. 3 and has a margin of error is 5.1 percent.
An ‘underground drug culture’?
Many students interviewed said they agree with the poll’s results, expressing the view that while certain students use and abuse drugs, the majority stay fairly clean.
One student, who asked to remain anonymous, went so far as to say that drug abuse on campus is “under-prevalent.”
The student, who is from New York, said he was surprised at the general lack of knowledge about hard drugs on campus compared to at home, and he had expected much more of an “underground drug culture” than exists at the University.
“Yale is definitely not immune to drugs,” said Richard Nelb ’08, a member of the Public Health Coalition which works on health and substance abuse issues on campus, such as tobacco and alcohol abuse. “But at the same time, it’s not an outlier.”
Nelb is a staff columnist for the News.
But Elizabeth Sheets, NUR ’09, a McDougal Wellness Fellow, said she was surprised by the results and expected undergraduates to be more “experimental.”
Sheets, who counsels graduate students on health issues, said, while many graduate students stick to what is legal for them — alcohol — her impression was that undergraduate students have a “different drug culture” that supports a wider variety of drugs, she said.
Allyson Goldberg ’08, a Peer Health Educator, said, in line with the poll results, the information that PHE has gathered on substance abuse has concluded marijuana is the non-alcoholic “substance of choice” at Yale. One reason for this, she speculated, is that many students perceive it has lower single-use consequences than other drugs.
But Richard Potenza, a psychiatry professor at the medical school, who works on substance abuse issues, said many of marijuana’s effects are long-term and influence processes like cognition and motivation that do not become readily apparent until much after its use, while marijuana still poses the same health risks that smoking tobacco does.
Some studies also show marijuana to be addictive, despite popular conceptions, he added.
But the trend many not be one specific to youth. A study conducted in 2001 by the National Institute on drug abuse found that marijuana is the most frequently used illicit drug in the United States, with approximately 33 percent of all Americans having tried it at least once in their lifetimes. Following a decade of decline in the 1980s, the use of marijuana among youth has actually risen since the early 1990s, the study shows.
Popping prescription pills
But despite the prevalence of marijuana, it may only be a matter of time until the drug of choice on college campuses changes — to prescription medication.
“Statistically, prescription-drug abuse is on the rise, particularly among women and young adults aged 18-25,” Rebecca Schrier, Student Health Educator at Yale University Health Services and coordinator of the Peer Health Educators, wrote in an e-mail to the News.
Indeed, a study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted in 2003 found that an estimated 4.7 million Americans used prescription drugs non-medically for the first time in 2002.
Research has attributed this sharp increase to factors such as easy access, over-prescription, increased social acceptability and the common perception that they are safe, she explained.
Many interviewed also agreed that Yale is absorbing the nation-wide increase in prescription drug intake.
In fact Jon Gaulding ’10, a PHE member, said he would guess Yalies would be even more likely than the average student to pop prescription pills because “Yale students are more willing to sacrifice for our ambitions.”
The anonymous junior who frequently takes Ritalin said that the numbers in the poll may actually understate the extent of the problem of prescription drug abuse, since more students take them as stimulants than publicly admit.
“They’re all over the place during exams,” he said.
One reason for this increase, Sheets said, is that prescription drugs may be less taboo than other types of hard drugs, especially given the common perception that they do not have harmful health consequences.
But she said that this belief is misplaced since prescription medications have specific, often complex biological effects.
“A lot of prescription drugs are meant to operate on intricate pathways, such as the neuron development and I think that people don’t realize that they are so carefully constructed,” she said. “They actually do what they’re supposed to do — people don’t get that.”
Still, drug abuse trails behind the larger concern of alcohol abuse, Marie Baker, YUHS substance abuse counselor, said. She said the poll accurately reflects that alcohol abuse is a far more prevalent phenomenon than is drug abuse on campus.
Fittingly, Gaulding said the PHE’s substance abuse discussion they present to freshmen during orientation, the Connections Workshop, focuses its largest chunk on alcohol education.
Additionally, in response to the growing use of prescription drugs for non-medical reasons both around the country and at Yale, Peer Health Educators added a section on prescription drugs to their Connections Workshop in 2002, PHE members said.