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All-nighter addiction: Adderall abuse thrives on competitive campuses, students pay the price for quick GPA boosts
By James El-Mallakh–
As students, academic success is valuable to us all. Most students with a fair degree of effort are able to succeed in class and pass with a good grade. But for some students making the grade comes at a higher cost: drug use.
Taking prescription drugs without a prescription is something some students do to enhance their focus and ability to recall information for exams. The most common type of drug for this is Adderall, a prescription drug used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. This and other drugs meant for ADHD patients are sometimes called “study drugs” because of their effects and the way they’re used by students.
Katie Smith is sophomore in graphic design at U of L. She has friends who use study drugs without prescriptions. “They’ve told me if they have a paper they have to do in a night it really helps,” said Smith. In terms of whether she thinks the drugs are dangerous, Smith thinks, “it definitely can be.” However, she also said she’s reluctant to address her friends about the risks involved with taking them.
Students that possess unprescribed drugs run the risk of academic probation. Laura Ulmer works in the dean of students office and handles behavior misconduct in students. She said drug use “is a culture. Once they’re in the culture they continue to stay in the culture.”
The penalties for someone caught with unprescribed drugs range from suspension to expulsion. Ulmer may also refer students to counseling if she thinks they need it.
“It’s somewhat rare for somebody to come in with a substance abuse problem as their primary presenting problem,” said Joanna Morse, a psychologist for U of L’s counseling center. Most students who go to the counseling center do so willingly to seek help with depression or anxiety. According to Morse, if a student does mention prescription drug misuse, “it’s sort of in a nonchalant kind of way.” This casual attitude about taking unprescribed drugs is common among students who do it.
Juan Pablo Kalawski is another psychologist for U of L’s counseling center. He said some of the misuse of prescription drugs stems from ignorance. “Not knowing where (students) can see a doctor to get a prescription the right way.”
If a counselor suspects a student might need treatment they can have ADHD testing, which U of L offers to any student for free. Dr. Gordon Strauss is one of the physicians who administers ADHD testing.
“There’s no doubt that even people without ADHD can get a stimulant effect, separate from what we might call the ADHD effect,” said Strauss about study drugs. He said the effects that these medicines have on someone with ADHD are different than those on someone without ADHD. “Stimulants can have… [someone] get wound up, become hyperactive, become somewhat less organized in their thinking.”
Strauss also said that at high enough doses a stimulant can induce paranoia and eventually cause addiction because it is an amphetamine. Strauss said that of the students he tests for ADHD only about 33 percent meet the criteria for diagnosable ADHD.
Students who don’t meet the criteria for ADHD can lie about the symptoms of ADHD to a doctor in order to be prescribed a study drug. Once a student has obtained Adderall or another stimulant, such as Ritalin or Concerta – both drugs intended for ADHD patients – they can sell the drugs to other students.
Ashley Robinson, a senior psychology major, has a friend who takes Adderall without a prescription. “I don’t think it’s hard for him to get it at all,” said Robinson. Some students have reported that Adderall is sometimes easier to get than other illicit substances like marijuana.
The National College Health Assessment survey, or NCHA, is given to students across the country by universities to collect data about their health. That data is then compiled by the American College Health Association, the group that writes the NCHA, to reflect the figures on a national level.
U of L’s spring 2010 NCHA survey found that 6.8 percent of U of L students reported using a stimulant prescription drug that was not prescribed to them. In the spring 2012 survey, that figure was 10 percent.
On a national scale the NCHA said that in the 2009 academic year, 5.75 percent of students reported using a stimulant prescription drug that was not prescribed to them. That figure was 6.5 in 2010 and 7.15 in 2011. The percentages per-semester are consistently higher during the spring semesters. Questions on the NCHA regarding prescription drug use were not asked prior to 2008.
On Wednesday, Nov. 28 the newly formed student group for pre-pharmacy majors held its biggest event in the Red Barn. The event focused on prescription drug abuse and tried to create a forum for discussion about the issue.
The speaker at the event was Brian Fingerson, the president of the KY Professionals Recovery Network. Fingerson said that ADHD brains and non-ADHD brains respond to study drugs differently.
“It causes changes in the brain physiology that are very similar to that in a person who’s using cocaine,” Fingerson said, “and those changes are not reversible.”
Phuong Luu, a sophomore pre-pharmacy major said this is the first time this topic has ever been brought up on campus. “A lot of people know how these medicines are used other than for ADHD among college students, said Luu. “Why do so many people know about this topic but at the same time we haven’t really seen an event on campus that’s put out to discuss this issue?”
Fingerson said that students face a tough decision regarding prescription drugs because they’re in a competitive environment.
“If you’re faced with a situation as a student where you’re in a competitive environment… and you see a classmate using Adderall or Concerta and they’re getting a better grade than you, should I or should I not avail myself of that?”
As for what the future holds, Fingerson believes that study drugs will follow the way of marijuana and alcohol: they’re illegal, but students choose to do them anyway.
“If people want to take pills, they’ll take pills. I don’t think you’re going to find anything legal or otherwise that will stand in the way of someone trying to get a better letter grade or to feed their addiction.”
Photos by Val Servino/The Louisville Cardinal