A study by researchers in the emerging West Virginia University School of Public Health and Western Illinois University shows that college-aged females who abuse painkillers are more likely than males to feel depressed and suicidal.

WVU associate professor Keith Zullig and Amanda L. Divin, assistant professor in the Western Illinois University Department of Health Sciences, explored prescription drug abuse and depressive symptoms because of the prevalence of nonmedical prescription drug use among college students.

The study used data from the fall 2008 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment, a national research survey that consists of questions related to health habits and behaviors.

The sample used for Zullig and Divin's study contained more than 26,600 randomly selected students from 40 U.S. college campuses. College students were asked about their possible prescription drug abuse of painkillers, stimulants, sedatives and antidepressants within the past year.

"College students typically get prescription drugs through friends and family. People in general don't see the harm in sharing prescriptions because these medicines are tested by the Food and Drug Administration and prescribed by a medical doctor," Zullig said.

"As our study demonstrates, the use of prescription drugs like OxyContin is related to suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and it's important for a doctor to monitor usage," he said. "We have to encourage more mental health outreach, particularly on college campuses where prescription drug sharing is common and mental health issues are known to manifest and occur."

Approximately 13 percent of students in the study reported non-medical prescription drug use and reported feeling hopeless, sad or depressed or considered suicide.

Analyzing the data by gender, Zullig and Divin found that depressive symptoms and suicidal tendencies were significantly associated with greater odds of non-medical prescription drug abuse, especially among females who abused painkillers.

The research suggests that students may be inappropriately self-medicating psychological distress with prescription medications.

The paper, "The association between non-medical prescription drug use, depressive symptoms, and suicidality among college students," will appear in the August 2012 issue of "Addictive Behaviors: An International Journal."