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The Problem with Study Drugs

The Problem with Study Drugs

In pursuit of academic excellence, it's become the go-to common-but-highly-illegal practice among college students to abuse prescription stimulant drugs.

Elizabeth Hoyt

May 30, 2013

It’s no secret that students are held to an almost-impossible standard of perfection. This comes from many areas: parents, teachers and, mostly society. The pressure to succeed can become unbearable because, after all, nobody’s perfect.

If you don’t think it’s a trend, you may want to open your eyes. Even in researching this article, it was amazing how many students commented that the use of Adderall and other prescription stimulant drugs shouldn’t be news, because it’s a norm; nothing new. It’s what students do. But that doesn’t make it ok.

It’s gone far enough that it’s the go-to common-but-highly-illegal practice among college students to abuse stimulant drugs. Why? The pursuit of perfection, of course.

As with most things in life, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The National Library of Medicine defines Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neurological disorder, as “a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity, or a combination.”

Other medical conditions, such as depression, lack of sleep, learning disabilities, tic disorders and behavioral issues may be mistaken or, even present in conjunction with ADHD.

Adderall and other drugs usually prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (some of the other common drugs are Ritalin and Vyvanse) are some of the most widely prescribed–and widely abused–prescription medications in America. Studies estimate anywhere from ten to 35 percent of college students abuse prescription drug stimulants, like Adderall, to boost their academic focus and achievement. The numbers increase with older students, as many as 80 percent of upperclassmen at one university.

Statistics resulting from studies have shown that students at highly competitive schools, especially in the Northeast, are more likely to abuse the prescription stimulants. Interestingly enough, Caucasian male undergraduates were most prevalent in usage, as well as students who are members of fraternities or sororities, usually with GPA’s of 3.0 or below.

Such students are said to be seeking a means to supplement their academic achievement levels through the usage and abuse through “study drugs” while maintaining active in other aspects of life. In other words, these students are supplementing natural energy and focus with drugs to accommodate the “do-it-all” lifestyle. The statistics, however, do not include the countless number of students that have prescriptions for the drugs by faking or exaggerating the symptoms of ADHD.

These drugs are prevalent on college campuses, though are immensely popular amongst high school students as well, likely due to extensive media coverage. A study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that “full-time college students, between the ages of 18 and 22, were twice as likely to abuse Adderall than those of the same age not in college.”

Students take the drugs to give them the capability to study or work for long periods of time, often hours on end, without sleeping, eating or interruption in focus. For many, it’s simple. What do students do when it’s necessary to pull an all-nighter? They simply pop an “Addie,” a commonly referred to pet name for the pill.

Also known as “smart drugs,” the pills are comprised of a mix of amphetamine salts and sold for anywhere from two to ten dollars a pill, on the low end of the scale – a relatively cheap alternative to studying the old fashioned way. It’s important to note that students find access to the medications through friends or acquaintances – not your stereotypical street corner drug dealers. One study found that Adderall and other drugs like it is abused more than marijuana and far easier to obtain. While many students utilize the medications for performance-enhancing academic pursuits, others that have access to the pills see it as a money-making goldmine.

A very dangerous-to-your-health, federal offense of a goldmine. If that sounds like an oxymoron, that’s because it is. Adderall, one of the most common stimulants, is dangerous and, as a result, is considered a Class 2 controlled substance. Drugs within the category, according to U.S. law, have “the highest abuse potential and dependence profile of all drugs that have medical utility.” To put the classification in perspective, it’s categorized within the same class as cocaine.

What may sound like a wonder-drug may be – for those who need it. It seems as if the quest to better one’s performance outweighs the serious health risks. Students that take the drugs illegally often describe themselves as “unstoppable” or “driven” while on the medication. The effects are compared to drugs like cocaine or speed. Researchers link the pressure to succeed, overloads of work and students’ resulting competitive mentalities to the abuse. But many students who illicitly take prescription stimulants don’t take the time to learn about and consider the many dangerous, life-threatening risks associated with the medications. After all, it is a drug.

In addition to being a federal crime to possess the pills without a prescription, usage of such stimulants has a high level of abuse and can lead to frightening side effects. Anxiety, depression, dependency, extreme anxiety levels, nervous breakdowns, sleep disorders, suicidal thoughts, psychosis—a mental disorder that causes a loss of grip with reality—and a variety of other mental illnesses. These are just a few of the common complaints associated with taking the drug.

Less serious symptoms include nervousness, jitters, stomach problems, headaches, sleeplessness and a decrease in appetite. Contrary to popular belief, sudden death has been attributed to the use of performance-enhancing stimulants.

What’s most alarming is that the abuse is so common that it’s not perceived by students as abnormal or dangerous. One study by Dr. Raymond Kotwicki, the medical director at the Skyland Trail mental health treatment facility and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Emory University’s school of medicine, found that students classify taking performance-enhancing stimulants as “slightly more dangerous than the soft drink Mountain Dew and nowhere near as dangerous as drinking beer and smoking.”

Though students are aware that taking the drugs without a prescription is illegal, many shrug it off as a technicality and ignore the fact that they could face prosecution if caught. It’s thought of as socially acceptable, if not normal, to use as long as it’s for academic achievement.

Students justify taking the drugs as a means to an end and consider it a different type of drug because they’re not taking it to get high; they’re taking it to get smarter. Since they’re ultimately using it for a positive outcome, like good grades, they think it’s not as bad as your run-of-the-mill street drugs. In reality, if you don’t have a medical condition making it necessary to take the prescription pills, it’s all the same.

What may seem like a solution to achieving it all has significant long term effects in the way people think, develops mood disorders and can even impair the ability to function normally. Students also complain that once they begin taking the drug to study, they no longer have the ability to study without it.

Part of issue in solving the abuse is that these are not your average junkies. Those that commonly abuse the drugs are highly functioning (even without the drug), often well-educated contributors to society. It’s easy to spot someone battling a drug addiction from seemingly more extreme drugs, say, meth or heroine, because of the physical and mental toll it takes. But with performance-enhancing stimulants, they effects are less noticeable because most people can function normally while on it. That is, until they’re negatively affected by side-effects or a variety of other medical conditions, and that’s just the list of short-term effects.

On the flip side, life on campus can be difficult for those that are rightfully prescribed stimulants. Students have experienced pressure from friends and acquaintances aware of their prescription, asking to purchase the pills. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s become the culture of college.

Luckily, many clinics and pharmacies have strict practices on early medication refills and replacing lost medication to help combat the issue of medication misuse. This creates an issue for those that actually need the drug to function normally in daily life, as the abuse causes anyone, regardless of condition, to need to jump through hoops for access to their medication.

Many campuses are cracking down on their health care professionals prescribing stimulants without the necessary testing and procedure to confirm the diagnosis. But before media attention and a slew of lawsuits, it was a lot easier to get prescription. College students are bright and know what to say to get doctors to oblige with prescriptions. This led to questionable diagnostic practices, with many students manipulating the system for years.

Now wise to the situation, schools have finally taken precautionary measures by changing policies for diagnosis, which can take a significant amount of testing and time. When policies were updated, the requests for the drugs remained high at schools like Fresno State, among many others across the country. The school was literally unable to handle the volume of requests and chose to no longer make diagnoses, referring students to medical health care professionals outside of the university.

For students that actually need the drugs, this long process can become cumbersome. However, most students that have experience with the drug understand the necessity of precautions like signing contracts that promise not to misuse or distribute the medication, waivers that allow physicians to contact a student’s parents to confirm symptoms and extensive testing, which can take months to complete.

Sure, college is intensely competitive and most student’s want to excel in academics. But, as with anything, one must balance risk and reward. Is it worth becoming dependent on a drug, risking a federal offense and experiencing mood-altering and, perhaps, life-threatening side effects? Have we, as a nation, given up on hard work and ethics? When laid out so clearly, the answer should seem quite obvious. (It’s a “no,” by the way.)

If you or someone you know is abusing stimulants like those mentioned in this article, you’re clearly not alone. Many struggle with addiction but, the good news is, there is help available. Acknowledging the issue means recovery is in sight.

For help with addiction or to learn about helping someone dealing with drug abuse, contact the Coalition Against Drug Abuse, go to your university’s health center or contact a medical health care professional.



Why do you feel there is such a prevalence of stimulant usage amongst students?


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