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Attitudes of College Students Toward Mental Illness Stigma and the Misuse of Psychiatric Medications

J Clin Psychiatry 2011;72(2):134-139

Objective: Mental illness stigma remains a significant barrier to treatment. However, the recent increase in the medical and nonmedical use of prescription psychiatric medications among college students seems to contradict this phenomenon. This study explored students’ attitudes and experiences related to psychiatric medications, as well as correlates of psychiatric medication misuse (ie, attitudes toward mental illness and beliefs about the efficacy of psychiatric medications).

Method: Data were collected anonymously via self-report questionnaires from April 2008 to February 2009. Measures included the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test, the Drug Abuse Screening Test, Day’s Mental Illness Stigma Scale, the Attitudes Toward Psychiatric Medication scale, and the Psychiatric Medication Attitudes Scale. Participants included 383 university students (59.2% female), recruited on the campus of a large state university or through online classes offered through the same university.

Results: High rates of psychiatric medication misuse were shown (13.8%) when compared to rates of medical use (6.8%), and students with prescriptions for psychiatric drugs were also more likely to be misusers (χ2 = 20.60, P < .001). Psychiatric medication misusers reported less stigmatized beliefs toward mental illness, including lower anxiety around the mentally ill (t = 3.26, P < .001) as well as more favorable attitudes toward psychiatric medications (t = 2.78, P < .01) and stronger beliefs in the potential for recovery from mental illness (t = −2.11, P < .05). Students with more stigmatized beliefs had greater concerns about psychiatric medications and less favorable beliefs regarding their effectiveness. Reasons for misuse varied by medication class, with 57.1% of stimulant misusers noting help with studying as their primary reason for use and 33.3% of benzodiazepine misusers noting attempts to get high or “party” as their primary reason for misuse.

Conclusions: Results suggest the need for improved education regarding the nature of mental illness, the appropriate use of psychiatric medications, and the potential consequences associated with abuse of these potent drugs.

J Clin Psychiatry

Submitted: March 26, 2009; accepted September 3, 2009.

Online ahead of print: November 16, 2010 (doi:10.4088/JCP.09m05254ecr).

Corresponding author: Lisa J. Merlo, PhD, PO Box 100183, Gainesville, FL 32610-0183 (lmerlo@ufl.edu).