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By Callie Bretthauer MCT Wire Service
Published: Monday, October 10, 2011
The most current statistics from the Centers of Disease Control in 2009 reveal that the number of deaths from overdosing on prescription drugs has surpassed that of traffic fatalities.
Preliminary data reveals that at least 37, 45 people died nationwide in 2009 alone from taking an excessive amount of medication.
Numerous factors contribute to the growing trend of death by overdose, but the most recognized is the widespread availability and increased accessibility of prescription drugs.
“Doctors are not only much more liberal about writing prescriptions for these medications when patients complain about pain, especially when they’re covered by a patient’s insurance,” Matthew Dintzner, a chemistry professor at DePaul said. “But federal funding for monitoring prescriptions has lapsed somewhat.”
“And there are other sources for these drugs, such as the Internet and street sales.”
Many of the drug overdoses in the U.S. often involve excessive amounts of pain and anxiety medications, which can be highly addictive as they appeal to the brain’s reward system.
After certain experiences the brain finds pleasurable, such as eating, there is an increase in the amount of the chemical dopamine released from neurons in key areas of the brain. Pain killers and anxiety medications produce a similar but more potent effect.
“The human brain is wired to ensure that we repeat life-sustaining activities by associating those activities with pleasure or reward,” said Doctor Jeffrey Lanfear, University Counseling Services psychologist at DePaul.
“Whenever this circuit is activated, the brain notes that something important is happening that needs to be remembered, and teaches us to do it again and again, without thinking about it. Because drugs of abuse overstimulate the same circuit, we learn to abuse drugs in the same way. In a sense, the drugs of abuse trick or even hijack the normal circuitry of the brain.”
Combining any prescription drug with alcohol can especially be dangerous.
“Even in the case of generally safe and non-addictive medications such as antidepressants, excessive alcohol use may lower the seizure threshold or increase the chance of having memory blackouts,” said Lanfear.
The steps needed to address this alarming trend are tricky and complicated. While traffic fatalities have decreased as a result of improved automobile safety, there has been no sort of innovation to help make prescription drugs safer.
“Cars have become safer, but the drug is still the drug,” said Jerry Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul. “There possibly needs to be some kind of device that prevents a person from overdosing.”
In response to the increase in drug overdoses, the White House released a plan to deal with what it calls “America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis.” According to a White House study, there was a 400 percent increase between 1998 and 2008 in substance abuse treatment admissions for prescription pain relievers.
“Clearly this is a growing issue,” said Dintzner, “and I think there needs to be better monitoring of prescription drugs. I believe that many states are working on this, so that’s at least one step in the right direction.”
Increased prescription drug abuse awareness is also crucial to addressing this problem, especially among college students. The desire to take an excessive amount of prescription drugs, while not as widely abused as alcohol or marijuana, has become more commonplace in recent years on campus.
“There’s always been a tendency among teens to want to go into an altered state,” said Ferrari.
“Prescription drugs are readily available for teens since all they have to do is look through Mom and Dad’s medicine cabinet. It’s just easy to pop a pill and easier to hide a pill,” he said.
According to American College Health Assessment data from 2010, about 7 percent of college students reported using stimulants not prescribed to them within the last 12 months. Additionally, 9.3 percent of college students used non-prescribed pain killers and 4.5 percent took non-prescribed sedatives in the past 12 months.
“Many college students are under a lot of pressure to succeed–perhaps more so during difficult economic times,” said Lanfear.
“Some students may take prescription stimulant drugs to try to improve their academic performance, ” he said. “In a high pressure environment, there is more of a temptation to over use prescribed medications.”
College students are encouraged to deal with anxiety or pain by learning how to manage stress, handle difficult situations, and make healthy choices. While medications may be necessary for some, they are not the best solution for everyone.
There are many services available at DePaul for those who feel the need talk about and receive help in addressing a substance abuse problem.
University Counseling Services has counselors accessible who specialize in issues relating to substance abuse and addictive problems, and numerous 12-step meetings exist, such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, within both the Lincoln Park and Loop campuses at no cost.
Additionally, the university can connect students with local resources such as inpatient or outpatient detoxification programs and hospital-based addiction recovery programs. The Dean of Students Office is available to talk to for those who feel the need to take time off from school in order to stabilize their health situation.