Nearly Half of Homeless Youth Have Misused Prescription Drugs, Study Says

An open pill bottle.

“Prescription Drug Misuse Among Homeless Youth,” Harmony Rhoades, Hailey Winetrobe, and Eric Rice. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Vol. 138 (May 2014).

What it’s about: Researchers asked 435 homeless youth, recruited from two Los Angeles drop-in centers, how often they misused prescription drugs like Oxycontin and Xanax and how they got the medications.

To see what factors accompany prescription drug misuse among homeless youth, the researchers also asked about other substance use, mental health, trauma histories and risky sexual behaviors.

Why read it: Young adults misuse prescription drugs more often than any other illegal substance with the exception of marijuana, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Prescription drugs taken without—or in excess of—doctors’ orders can damage the shape of the teen brain and lead to serious side effects, even death.

Homeless youth, according to previous studies, are more likely to use illegal drugs and alcohol than their housed peers, even when they recognize that substance abuse can pull them away from family, friends and other support systems.  

According to authors Rhoades, Winetrobe and Rice, this is the first study to focus on the types of prescription drugs young people experiencing homelessness misuse and how they get these drugs. Better understanding how common prescription drug misuse is and what puts youth at risk can help programs improve their intake process and tailor services to address prescription drug problems.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Nearly half of participants said they had misused prescription drugs at some point in their life. About 20 percent reported misuse within the past 30 days. By comparison, other studies of urban youth (not just homeless youth) have found past 30-day misuse rate to be about 6 percent, the authors say.

Of the prescription drugs homeless youth reported misusing, opioids and sedatives were the most common.

Young people who said they engaged in unprotected sex or took hard drugs were also more likely to report prescription drug misuse. On the other hand, participants who had been in foster care at some point were less likely to report prescription drug misuse.

Rhoades, Winetrobe and Rice suggest that family and youth workers should view prescription drug misuse as part of a constellation of risky behaviors rather than a standalone problem. For example, they write, youth may substitute prescription drugs for expensive hard drugs such as methamphetamine and heroin, when the illicit drugs are unavailable, or use them to enhance the effects of the illicit drugs. Because about a quarter of participants said they had received free prescription drugs from relatives or friends, the researchers also suggest programs find ways to keep adults from sharing prescriptions with youth.

Additional references: Look for more articles on youth substance abuse, including misuse of prescription drugs, in NCFY’s research library.

You might also be interested in the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s research-based guide for treating teen substance abuse.

And check out our comparison of three evidence-based practices to reduce substance use, including motivational interviewing, ecologically-based family therapy and the community reinforcement approach.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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