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Rutgers study highlights risk of substance use among college students with disabilities

College students with disabilities were found to be more likely to misuse psychotherapeutic drugs or prescription painkillers compared to their non-disabled peers, according to the study.  – Photo by Pxhere

College students with disabilities have a significantly higher prevalence of illicit drug use and drug use disorders than their non-disabled peers, according to a Rutgers study.

The study examined the prevalence of illicit drug use and substance dependence and abuse in a total of 6,189 college students, with 15.5 percent of the sample having a disability. Researchers utilized the data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, said Myriam Casseus, lead author of the study. 

“Students with any disability had a higher prevalence of illicit drug use and significantly higher odds of ever having used illicit drugs,” Casseus said. “Compared to their peers with no disabilities, students with disabilities were more likely to have misused psychotherapeutic drugs (i.e., pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives) in the past year and had nearly twice the odds of misusing prescription pain relievers in the past month.”

Of college students with disabilities, 40.2 percent reported past-year use of illicit drugs compared to 30.6 percent of college students without disabilities, according to the study. Students with disabilities were also three times more likely to meet criteria for past-year illicit drug dependence or abuse, Casseus said.

Less than one percent of students without disabilities had ever used heroin compared to 2.5 percent of students with disabilities, according to the study.

Casseus said young adults are already vulnerable to mental illness and drug use disorders and said the higher prevalence of substance use among students with disabilities may be partly due to these students' self-medicating.

“Drug use and drug use disorders can affect college students with disabilities during a critical neurodevelopmental period, impairing cognition and negatively impacting academic achievement," the authors wrote, according to the study. "These behaviors can increase medical noncompliance and thus contribute to poor health, especially in students with comorbid conditions.”

The findings suggest that health care providers should be mindful when treating college students with disabilities, especially when prescribing medications that may lead to misuse or dependence, according to the study. 

The most commonly reported disability was cognitive impairment, according to the study. This suggests that interventions for such students should be included in drug prevention and treatment programs, Casseus said.

“Considering that this year is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we think that the results of this study are relevant, especially since the number of college students with disabilities pursuing postsecondary education has been increasing every year,” Casseus said.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article attributed a quote to Myriam Casseus instead of the study.

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