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Keeping Medications Secret – A Way to Curb Abuse?

A recent article in USA Today about the challenges of dealing with ADHD at college suggested students keep their conditions – and their prescriptions – secret from their peers.

The reason? Abuse of stimulant medications like Adderall and Ritalin is rampant on college campuses, where the medications are used as “study drugs” and also to provide a boost of energy during long nights of drinking and partying.

As a result, students with such prescriptions can find themselves under intense pressure to share or sell their pills.

But when students keep their meds a secret from peers, does anyone actually benefit?

As someone who thinks we need to talk more openly about medications and explore their impacts on different aspects of young people’s lives and identities, I find this call for secrecy unsettling.

It’s true that ADHD stimulants are widely abused, both by young people who have prescriptions for them, and by those who don’t.

That’s also the case for antianxiety benzodiazepines like Xanax and controlled sleeping medications like Ambien. Young people take the latter either as mellow party drugs that enhance the effects of alcohol or to counteract certain effects of stimulants, such as anxiety or insomnia.

It’s also true that abuse of controlled psychiatric medications is a real risk among young, college-aged adults. According to U.S. government statistics, nearly 6 percent of young people ages 18 to 25 use psychiatric medications nonmedically. That’s two to three times the rate of teens ages 12 to 17 or adults 26 and older.

Still, I don’t think keeping controlled medications a secret serves the important aim of helping young people striking out on their own to learn to responsibly manage their treatment.  And it hardly bolsters longtime efforts by mental health advocates to reduce the stigma surrounding psychiatric disorders and their treatment.

Instead, I think that keeping mum about one’s psychiatric prescriptions is more likely to feed into a culture of shame and secrecy surrounding medication use.

For those looking to abuse the drugs, driving meds underground may make them harder to procure, but scarcity could also increase their allure and make them even more sought-after.

Just as important, though, is to the detrimental effect secrecy could have on the young people with prescriptions for the drugs.

Certainly, anyone who takes psychiatric medication has the right to disclose it selectively to certain confidants, or not at all. But, in my mind, no one should feel that they have to keep their prescriptions secret for fear their peers might pester them for pills.

That is hardly a productive strategy for coming to terms with one’s condition, developing a healthy approach to treatment, and forming trusting relationships with peers who can provide crucial social support during time of relapse or extreme stress.

Far more useful, I think, is to learn when it is appropriate to disclose one’s medication use and to whom – and how to say no firmly and confidently when peers clamor for illegal handouts of pills.

Please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts!

medicine cabinet shelves filled with pill bottles, available at Shutterstock

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Keeping Medications Secret – A Way to Curb Abuse?

Kaitlin Bell Barnett

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APA Reference
Bell Barnett, K. (2019). Keeping Medications Secret – A Way to Curb Abuse?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Mar 2019
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