Between club meetings, sorority mixers, intramural volleyball games, and filling out applications to land that killer summer internship, who even has time to study in college anymore? With such chaotic lives, collegiettes today are typically professional procrastinators. But what’s a collegiette to do when it’s midnight and she hasn’t even started studying for that 8 a.m. exam yet? Several college students across the country have found a risky solution: study drugs.
Study drugs are prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin that are used inappropriately to increase mental focus and productivity for the purpose of studying. Also called “smart drugs,” they are commonly prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Used without a prescription, however, these drugs can be dangerous – not to mention illegal. Despite the risks, about 1 in 5 college students reports using study drugs to get a short-term boost of energy for those dreaded all-nighters.
“A Growing Problem”
Amanda*, a student at Auburn University, was feeling the stress of a collegiette’s life. One night, she decided to try Adderall to see if it would help her focus on studying for an important test the next day. Even without a prescription, she was able to get a dose of Adderall from her friends, who frequently ask her if she wants any of their pills. Although it took longer to kick in than she expected, after 15 minutes she could feel her focus growing. “Instead of wanting to lay around and do nothing, I actually wanted to get things done,” she says.
Like many college students, Amanda usually relies on coffee to keep her going, but she says coffee just makes her jittery, whereas Adderall gave her focus. “With Adderall, I don’t want to run around,” she says, “I just want to focus on the task that is in front of me.”
Amanda is just one of the overwhelming number of college students across the country seeking focus and productivity who have turned to prescription drugs.
The University Health Services department at the University of Texas at Austin says that 87 percent of the university’s students say they do not use study drugs, but that it is “a growing problem” nonetheless. The department also reports that about 50 percent of college students who have prescriptions for ADHD treatment medications have been asked by others to give out their pills.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that five percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 illegally used prescription psychotherapeutic drugs like Adderall and Ritalin. While five percent may not seem like a significant number, it is higher than the percentage of that demographic that illegally used cocaine and hallucinogens such as LSD combined.
“The misuse of prescription drugs among college students often flies under the radar,” says Natalie Rich, the alcohol and drug intervention specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Students think these drugs are safer than street drugs, but in reality, their effects are very similar, and they can be highly addictive.”
Risks Versus Rewards
Study drugs can improve focus and motivation to study, but the short-term benefits of these substances do not come without their fair share of risks.
Prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are designed to give users increased concentration focus. Experts agree that when used appropriately under the guidance of a doctor, they are effective tools to overcome attention disabilities like ADD and ADHD.
“For people with ADD or ADHD, these drugs may have a calming effect because the drugs increase dopamine in the brain, and it is believed that ADHD sufferers lack adequate dopamine,” explains Rich. “For those without ADHD, these drugs are more likely to cause restlessness and euphoria because these people already have enough dopamine.”
However, the misuse of such drugs can be dangerous, especially when used regularly or combined with alcohol and other drugs.
“People who use these drugs only on occasion to study are much more likely to crash once the drug has worn off,” says Rich. “The crash can cause exhaustion and depression because the body’s energy supplies and dopamine have all been used up.”
Along with increasing concentration and focus, study drugs have short-term risks like increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, nervousness, and insomnia. Natalie asserts that each of these risks is present even when the drugs are only used once.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Adderall can cause hallucinations, impulsive behavior, paranoia, and irritability. These are among a long list of dangerous side effects that probably won’t help with that final tomorrow morning when used by people for whom the drugs are not prescribed!
In addition to the health consequences associated with study drugs, a collegiette who uses these substances could face serious legal consequences like fines, jail time, and suspension from school. Misusing prescription drugs, with or without a prescription, is illegal, as is passing out these substances to others. Additionally, your chances of committing a crime increase when you’re under the influence of drugs.
And then, there are the long-term risks. Adderall and other prescription stimulants have been known to cause adverse side effects when used with antidepressants like Marplan and Nardil. When used simultaneously with antidepressants, which are used to treat depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders, study drugs can produce life-threatening effects.
The most worrisome risk of using study drugs is the potential for dependence and addiction. Addiction can lead to the health conditions mentioned above, as well as more serious consequences, namely death.
Study drug users don’t necessarily plan to get addicted to the helpful substances—we would hope not!—but it certainly happens. “Adderall and Ritalin are Schedule II substances, meaning these drugs have a high potential for abuse and dependence,” Rich says. “Because of this, anyone using these drugs without supervision is at higher risk of developing a problem.”
Richard Fee was a 24-year-old college graduate from Virginia Beach, Va. He played on the baseball team and served as sophomore class president at Greensboro College, and he was one of the last people you’d expect to have a drug addiction. Yet, Fee had been able to falsely convince doctors and nurses that he had ADHD since his days as an undergrad. In November 2011, Fee’s addiction to prescription stimulates turned deadly when took his own life after his most recent prescription for Adderall ran out.
Despite the dangerous consequences, the use of study drugs is alive and well on college campuses across the country. Even Amanda, who has had personal experience with study drugs, says she would use the drugs in the future. “I would take [Adderall] again if I felt it was necessary,” she says. “I do not want to become dependent on it, but I do appreciate its effects on me while I’m studying for an important test.”
The persistent study drug trade on college campuses speaks to the pressure that collegiettes and collegents face on a regular basis. UT-Austin reports that students in highly competitive academic environments at four-year institutions and those with higher family incomes are at an increased risk for prescription drug abuse.
Students like Amanda and Richard Fee would probably not feel the need to resort to prescription drugs if they did not feel so much pressure to succeed. While the pressure of success can be an effective motivator, it can also be a heavy burden on today’s college students, driving them to dangerous lengths to make the grade.
How do Students Get These Drugs?
On many college campuses, there is no secretive black market for study drugs because they are often easily attainable. There are two ways to obtain study drugs: you can either get a prescription, or you can make friends with someone who has a prescription and who is willing to dole out doses. Judging from the stories of Richard Fee and Amanda, neither of these options is particularly challenging.
“On my campus, and I imagine at most other campuses as well, Adderall is extremely easy to find,” Amanda says. “Sometimes you don’t even have to ask for it if your friends take it regularly and study with you often.”
UT-Austin’s health services department says that 58 percent of college students who misuse prescription drugs get them from their peers.
“People will try to sell [Adderall] to get cash for laundry money,” Amanda says.
These distributors can often get a prescription for study drugs relatively easily from their on-campus health centers. In some cases, it can be as easy as a student filling out a short survey and walking away with a prescription in as little as 10 minutes. Combined with the perceived benefits, this ease of access makes study drugs appealing to overwhelmed, grade-hungry college students.
Healthier Alternatives to Study Drugs
Prescription drugs do not have to be the answer for a collegiette’s stressful life. Who needs the dangerous side effects and legal issues, anyway? There are healthy, proactive steps that collegiettes can take to keep their academic and professional lives in check without study drugs.
Kelley Urban, a registered dietitian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has several stress-beating strategies for college students, none of which involves study drugs. She encourages students to set aside time each day to relax by yourself—without friends, Facebook, or your phone. “Just rest and reflect,” she says.
She also urges students to eat a balanced and healthy diet, limit caffeine intake, and get plenty of sleep… just the opposite of taking drugs and staying up all night!
Collegiettes can also practice relaxation techniques to reduce day-to-day stress. Yoga, for example, has been proven to effectively reduce stress and promote a healthy lifestyle.
The key to productivity may also be having fun. Kelley encourages students to take study breaks and spend time with friends—another way to relax and reenergize for the next study period in your future.
While not concentrating on work can be a natural human tendency, it is important to remember that there are alternative ways of getting an energy boost that do not involve prescription drugs, or any drugs for that matter. Consider sipping on coffee, Mountain Dew, or Red Bull instead of popping pills. These may not be the healthiest strategies, but at least they’re legal!
*Name has been changed