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Media opportunity: Dalhousie University study finds that personality traits can help predict specific prescription drug misuse in teens ‑‑ a worsening crisis during the COVID‑19 pandemic

Posted by Communications and Marketing on May 10, 2021 in News

The number of young people misusing prescription drugs has been rising significantly over the last decade, with lethal consequences becoming commonplace as more potent drugs become increasingly accessible. Of any age group, 15 to 25-year-olds are the most likely to misuse prescription drugs.

Yet, there has been little research on the personality traits that may lead a teen to abuse these medications, a worrisome trend that appears to have worsened with the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions and an associated alarming spike in the number of opioid hospitalizations and deaths.

A new study led by researchers at Dalhousie University looked to address that knowledge gap by examining predictors of different forms of prescription drug misuse in more than 3,000 high school students. They looked at four personality traits – anxiety sensitivity, negative thinking, sensation seeking and impulsivity -- that are known risks for the misuse of other substances, such as alcohol and cannabis. These traits were measured in Grade 9 to predict Grade 10 mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, conduct problems, and attention deficits. Together, personality and later mental health symptoms were examined as predictors of specific forms of prescription drug misuse in Grade 10.

Looking at each personality trait separately, clear relationships emerged. First, the study found that a negative thinking personality trait in Grade 9 was predictive of depressive symptoms in Grade 10, which in turn was predictive of opiate misuse in that grade.

Similarly, scoring high in the trait of anxiety sensitivity in Grade 9 was predictive of Grade 10 anxiety symptoms, which in turn predicted tranquilizer misuse in Grade 10. Sensation seeking and impulsivity traits were also found to be predictive of separate pathways to different forms of prescription drug misuse.

Dr. Sherry Stewart, a professor in Dal’s Department of Psychiatry, co-authored the study that suggests the possibility that personality-matched screening and interventions could reduce prescription drug misuse in teens, and even prevent prescription misuse before it starts.

Dr. Stewart is available to discuss the findings and how early identification and intervention are some of the best tools for curbing the troubling rise of prescription drug misuse in adolescents.


Media contact: 
Alison Auld
Senior Research Reporter 
Communications, Marketing and Creative Services 
Dalhousie University 
Cell: 1-902-220-0491 Email:


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