Medical Students and Addiction

By: Dr Jayasudha Gude MD

With all of the stresses of exams, paying for school, learning about patients, and even maybe having a little leftover time for a personal life, med school has always been a breeding ground for addictions. Drug use and dependency in med students or doctors have always been higher than people not in healthcare.

There can be a variety of causes for these issues. They may be looking for a way to “take the edge off” the stress.  They could be searching for a form of escapism. Med school may not be what they dreamed being a doctor would be like, and they are often left with life-altering student loan debt. Finally, they might turn to drugs like cocaine or study drugs like Adderall to help them pull all-nighters or as a social crutch when going out with classmates.

What the Research Says

Studies put the use and dependence of drugs, alcohol, and psychedelics at higher than the national average among med students when compared to other groups. Dependency rates were categorized as 5% for med students and 3% for doctors.

Drug use and dependency isn’t just an issue for students. It’s actually shown that 37% of addicts who graduated from med school prescribe drugs to themselves.

Among drugs used, alcohol was the most prevalent, with more than 95% of med students reporting that they drink.

Among other types of students, medical students have twice the rate of problematic drinking behaviors. One in three have been identified as having alcohol use that is a cause for concern. Variables that increase the risk of problematic drinking include increased debt and being single. 

Experts cite rising medical school costs as one source of the stress, with it increasing from $120,000 to $190,000 between 2000 and 2016, with no signs of slowing down.

Some schools implement wellness programs or stress reduction seminars. At the University of Florida, 70% of med students were shown to have problematic drinking patterns. As a result, the school implemented a mandatory longitudinal wellness program. The program focuses on five pillars of a healthy lifestyle including nutrition, mental health, physical wellness and relationships.

Different studies analyzed whether drug use began before or during medical school, with most starting before med school. However, one study showed that those with aggressive personality traits were more likely to use, although that connection was weaker.

Among anesthesiologists, those who had dependencies graduated and became doctors at a rate of 51%. Many people would hesitate to have a doctor in active addiction treat them, and schools are trying to meet the needs of their students to try and stop the trend. Doctors say the easy access to these substances makes it difficult to say no.

While prescription pain medicine and fentanyl are the drugs of choice for many, more than 25% report using marijuana as well. The problem is multifaceted and there are many issues to address when tackling drug use before, during, and after medical school

About the author:

Dr Jayasudha Gude MD graduated from NTR University of health sciences in 2010 in India. After graduating, she worked in India for about a year and moved to the United states in 2012. Worked as a research scholar at Stanford university and had extensive clinical experience in the fields of Medicine and Psychiatry. Currently she is working as a research volunteer and actively involved in crisis counseling. She is very passionate about psychiatry and looks forward to contributing more in this field.

Sources – Substance Abuse by Medical Students and Doctors – Burnout and Alcohol Abuse/Dependence Among U.S. Medical Students – Growing concern over Medical Students’ Excessive Drinking – Drug Use Among Medical Students – Medical School Secrets: Study Finds Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Med School – 30-Day Inpatient Rehab Programs

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