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Youth perceptions on recreational or non-medical use of psychoactive medications

BELSPO-project (federale overheid)

The misuse of psychoactive medicines (such as sedatives or tranquilizers, opioid-based pain medicine, and stimulants) has become a growing societal problem, carrying increased health-related harms. From a public health perspective, there is a clear need to better understand the context of non-medical or recreational use and supply of psychoactive medications, as well as users’ perceptions of that usage and associated harms – particularly focusing on at risk groups, such as young users.

There have been prior efforts to study the misuse of psychoactive medications, but these bear important limitations that do not allow the drawing of lessons for policies in Belgium. Firstly, part of this body of knowledge has addressed the broader increasing trend in medical use of psychoactive medication and associated prescribing practices. Secondly, a significant portion of the research conducted in this area has primarily aimed at monitoring prevalence rates of use. Furthermore, there is a dearth of research in this area focusing particularly on the Belgian context (for an overview of previous such research see further below).

With a view to contribute to informing Belgian policies, and to overcome the scientific limitations mentioned above, we propose to conduct a mixed methods study focusing on the following questions/topics: (RQ1) young people’s (18-34) views on types of medications used, settings of use and supply, perceptions of risk and social acceptability, (RQ2) types of information consulted, and (RQ3) self-perception(s) of nonmedical/ recreational use and supply of psychoactive medication among online communities of (potential) users;. The study aims to (RQ4) provide recommendations for measures that may counter or reduce the harms associated with non-medical/recreational use of psychoactive medications among young people. As such, the project will capture both general/public representations as well as users’ own perceptions, generating complementary and rich insights for prevention policies in this area. Furthermore, the proposed enquiry will pay special attention to young people’s views and experiences on these issues. In terms of the research approach, the proposed design combines qualitative and quantitative methods, and integrates also an online perspective (e.g. analysis of online discussion forums; online survey). In a first phase, we will review national and international literature (peer reviewed and grey, as well as relevant Belgian policy documents) in this area, as well as collect prevalence data available for Belgium (in particular with regards to a youth population) (3 months). Next, we will develop and run an online survey among Belgian youth (18-34 years old) (4 months). We will conduct qualitative, semi-structured interviews among young users. Finally, we will then carry an exploratory analysis of the contents of online discussion forums (2 months).

This research project will be carried by a research team with strong experience in drug research, and in implementing the methodological approach outlined above. The composition of the research team enables the collection of data across the country and ensures optimal language coverage (e.g., in both Dutch and French), building on the regional expertise and networks of each of the partners.


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