By Constance Scharff, PhD
Prescription ADHD medications like Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse are becoming increasingly popular for overworked and overscheduled college students. ADHD stimulants strengthen the brain’s inhibitory capacities, by increasing the amount of certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Students like these drugs because they enhance their study efforts.
Prescription “study drugs” are commonly abused to increase concentration for last minute cramming or paper writing. The numbers vary significantly by school, with the greatest proportion of users at private and “elite” universities. Some researchers estimate about 30% of university students use stimulants non-medically.
Students believe that they take these stimulants for the “right reasons,” to be more productive in classes and to stay afloat in a flood of intense competition. In the competitive atmosphere at many schools, students seldom take the time to consider short or long-term risks of taking these drugs, nor understand how certain stimulants may interact with other drugs.
Sean McCabe, research associate professor at the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center said:
“Our biggest concern is the increase we have observed in this behavior over the past decade. College students tend to underestimate the potential harms associated with the nonmedical use of prescription stimulants.”
While students’ knowledge of the health dangers are limited, even less consideration is given to the illegality of use. Obtaining stimulants from friends with prescriptions, as the vast majority of college students do, seems less dangerous and illegal than buying drugs off the street. Yet these drugs are illegal if used other than intended or by someone other than the person to whom they are prescribed. These drugs are Schedule II substances, on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list right next to cocaine and morphine.
Colleges and universities need to increase awareness about the abuse of these drugs and prompt broader discussion about misuse of medications like Ritalin or Adderall for study purposes. Prevention education for all students may help inform many that these drugs are highly addictive and can have serious side effects. A medical professional or counselor can provide help and support if a student you know is abusing these drugs, along with more information if needed.
About the author: Constance Scharff has a Ph.D. in Transformative Studies, specializing in addiction recovery. She is the Senior Addiction Research Fellow and Director of Addiction Research at Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center, and co-author of Ending Addiction for Good with Richard Taite.