Increase in Substance Use Around Finals?

Finals are approaching, which can be the most stressful time of the semester for students. Organized study break activities, health services promotions, and even therapy dogs are brought to campuses to help students cope. The fact is, many students will spend long hours studying, and some will turn to prescription drugs to help. Of the students surveyed, 76% said that the most common reason they use prescription stimulants was to study or improve grades.

Here’s a look at the current state of prescription drug misuse on campuses and what educators and higher education leaders can do to combat the growing issue.

Prevalence of prescription drug misuse on college campuses

Adults ages 18-25 misuse prescription drugs more than any other age group, and prescription drug misuse has become a major concern among college students. Here are a few alarming stats revealing the severity of the issue:

  • More than 40% of young adults in college report having misused some type of prescription psychotherapeutic drug at least once in their lifetime.
  • In a survey of over 100,000 young adults, full-time college students and college graduates had the highest rates of prescription stimulant misuse.
  • Stimulants accounted for 75% of all reported peer prescription drug misuse on campus.

“[Much of] prescription stimulant misuse is motivated, frankly, by a desire to stay up when students have work that’s piling up such as studying for an exam or writing a paper,” said Dr. Laura Holt, Clinical Psychologist and Charles A. Dana Research Associate Professor of Psychology at Trinity College and subject matter expert on our Prescription Drugs simulation.

Students may think prescription drug misuse helps them study, but research shows that students who engaged in nonmedical use of prescription stimulants showed no advantages over their peers.

What is prescription drug misuse?

Prescription drug misuse is any use of a drug outside of its prescribed medical use. For those with a prescription, misuse can include taking more than the prescribed dose, stopping medication too soon, or taking medication for the wrong reasons. Some students with prescription stimulants may choose to skip doses on weekends, then double up during stressful periods like finals, or use the extra medication to share with or sell to peers.

Any use of someone else’s prescription medication is considered misuse. Even if a student shares a stimulant with a peer who also has a prescription, dosages can vary by person, and prescriptions should never be shared.

Adverse effects of stimulant misuse

There’s been a 155.9% increase in emergency room visits related to dextroamphetamine-amphetamine (commonly known as Adderall), despite no increase in prescriptions.

Although prescription stimulants can help those with medical conditions like ADHD, their misuse can lead to potentially serious adverse effects including:

  • Psychosis
  • Anger
  • Paranoia
  • Heart, nerve, and stomach issues
  • Seizures
  • Substance use disorder
  • Sleep issues
  • Withdrawal symptoms

The nonmedical use of stimulants has also been linked to risky and impulsive behaviors, including risky sexual activity, disordered gambling, other drug use, and binge-eating disorder. These behaviors come with their own adverse effects, which further exacerbates the issue.

How to spot warning signs of stimulant misuse

Signs of substance misuse can vary depending on the drug. Let’s focus on stimulants since those are the most prevalent on college campuses, especially during finals.

According to the Mayo Clinic, some signs of stimulant misuse include:

  • Reduced appetite
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Being unusually energetic, high or revved up
  • Social withdrawal
  • Sudden loss of interest in activities or relationships
  • Financial problems
  • Sleeping for unusually long periods
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Decline in personal hygiene

In the classroom, educators may notice a difference in behavior. Students may be especially alert, jittery, or speak up in class more than usual.

If substance misuse is suspected, it’s important to have meaningful conversations and connect them to support if needed.

Discussing mental health and substance use with students

Higher education leaders play an important role in prevention and intervention. By understanding warning signs and knowing what to do when they’re concerned about a student, faculty, staff, and even peers can help them make healthy decisions and get the support they need.

When initiating these conversations, a foundation of knowledge can help improve confidence and outcomes. Knowing the signs to look for (like those listed above), the negative effects of prescription drug misuse, and resources available to students if they need help makes for productive, impactful conversations. By sharing the facts, we can dispel misconceptions about prescription drug use and build stronger, safer campus communities.

Most students who illegally use stimulants get it from their peers

Over 1 in 4 students said stimulants are “somewhat easy” or “very easy” to obtain. Why? Because they don’t have to search far to find a drug dealer — they just have to ask a friend, roommate, or peer. About two-thirds of young adults illegally using stimulants like Adderall get it from their friends or roommates, and 62% of students report selling or giving away their medications to peers.

It may feel like “helping a friend,” but it’s anything but helpful. Students need to be aware of the dangers of sharing prescription medication, as well as evidence-based ways to refuse when a peer asks to share.

Educating students about prescription drug misuse

When it comes to prescription drug misuse, prevention is the best strategy. When students understand the risks involved with illegally sharing or using prescription drugs, they are better equipped to make healthy decisions that support themselves and their peers.

In our Prescription Drugs simulation, students assess misconceptions about prescription drug use; learn to safely use, store, and dispose of their prescriptions; practice applying refusal skills, and explore help-seeking strategies for themselves and friends. In the 30-minute simulation, students engage in a role-play conversation where they assume the role of a college student who has ADHD and is taking a prescription for it. Their friend asks to use some of their prescription medication to help her study for an upcoming exam. The goal is to show the friend that they care about her friendship while making healthy decisions related to their prescription medication.

Prescription Drugs works well with our Mental Health Suite, which helps students build skills to support their emotional well-being. Together, they’ll learn how to address prescription drug misuse, as well as healthy coping strategies to lean on in times of stress.

To learn more, visit Or better yet, take a demo to experience the power of virtual simulation.

Scroll to Top