'Study Drugs' Are a Dangerous Way to Earn an ‘A’

Stressed and pressured to achieve, some college students ignore the ethical, legal and medical consequences of “study drugs.”

December 11, 2014

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A trend in higher education shows that some college students are striving for achievement through illegal and dangerous means. According to research some students are turning to stimulants such as Adderall to manage the stress of finals.

By Brittney Dunkins

George Washington University alumna Stacie Buell, B.A. ’14, says that you could see the shift in the days before final exams. The Estelle and Melvin Gelman library would fill up with students on round-the-clock study binges, seemingly fueled by the pursuit of academic success.

But that wasn’t the case for all students. Ms. Buell says some students feeling overworked and pressured to achieve would turn for help to Adderall, an amphetamine commonly prescribed to people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“A lot of kids at GW don’t have it on their radar, but for some, Adderall is a Band-Aid for all the stress,” Ms. Buell said. “They use it every finals season.”

It wasn’t just a hunch for Ms. Buell. During her sophomore year, she explored the problem for a School of Media and Public Affairs project. She spoke with GW students who were abusing stimulants and reached out to medical professionals.  Ms. Buell said it opened her eyes to how some students relied on the drug to study.

The issue is not unique to GW, according to several research studies. Adderall has become the go-to “study drug” among college students across the United States because of its ability to improve mental alertness.

"A lot of kids at GW don’t have it on their radar, but for some, Adderall is a Band-Aid for all the stress.” - Stacie Buell, B.A. ’14

About 1.4 million people aged 12 and older used stimulants, such as Adderall, for nonmedical purposes in 2013 —up from 970,000 people in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The survey also found that the average age of “first use of stimulants for non-medical purposes” is 21.6 years of age.

According to a 2007 University of Kentucky study, college students’ attitude toward the drug is putting them at risk. Nearly 60 percent of students surveyed used stimulants to “help them study” and 81 percent thought that illegal use of ADHD medication was “slightly dangerous” or “not dangerous at all.”

Commonly misused stimulants— such as Adderall and Ritalin— can have life-threatening consequences from insomnia and increased blood pressure to heart attack, seizure and stroke.

The Culture and Consequences

Donna Ticknor, a medical staff member at the GW Student Health Service (SHS), said “absolutely” the misuse and abuse of stimulants is a problem on college campuses.

"There are more people who have been prescribed stimulants that are attending college because we have been able to better recognize and treat adult ADHD,” Dr. Ticknor said. Unfortunately, there is the perception that because these medications have been prescribed by a medical professional they are safe for anyone and students share their medications.”

Pressure to succeed academically plays a large role in the use of study drugs, Dr. Ticknor said. An increase in legitimate medical prescriptions combined with a relaxed attitude about sharing pills also has contributed to the problem.

Dr. Ticknor believes that adult ADHD may be over-diagnosed in recent years.

“While adult ADHD is a valid medical problem that deserves proper treatment, busy clinicians do not always take the time to do a proper and thorough evaluation and ADHD medications are sometimes inappropriately prescribed,” Dr. Ticknor said

Nearly 60 percent of students surveyed used stimulants to “help them study” and 81 percent thought that illegal use of ADHD medication was “slightly dangerous” or “not dangerous at all.”

GW Law School alumna Madeline Cohen, J.D. ’14, wrote about the over-prescription of stimulants for the GW Law Review. Ms. Cohen found that in addition to increased prescriptions for drugs that manage ADHD, the drugs also were prescribed for off-label use, including weight loss in adolescents.

“In my research, I found that stimulants are prescribed to 12 to 19 year olds more often than any other drug,” Ms. Cohen said. “There has been a 46 percent increase in prescriptions since 2002.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies stimulants such as Adderall as Schedule II drugs—the same classification as cocaine. The classification is determined by how addicting or physically dangerous the drug is, Ms. Cohen said.

It also determines the criminal punishment under the law for illegally using the drug.

“Students are not aware of the extent of medical, legal or ethical consequences for sharing, selling or using someone else’s pills,” Dr. Ticknor said. “These drugs are as tightly controlled as Oxycontin, and selling, giving, stealing or taking someone’s pills is a felony.”

Under GW’s Code of Student Conduct, students who possess or use drugs on a first offense are subject to a $50 fine, completion of a drug abuse education program and eviction from residence halls. Students who manufacture, possess with intent to distribute or distribute drugs will be suspended.

“The consequences are not withstanding the very serious side effects that can occur—such as heart problems, psychosis and even death—when taking a prescription without a doctor’s supervision,” Dr. Ticknor said. “When you give someone your pills, you put yourself and them at risk.”

Finding a Healthy Way to De-Stress

Alexis Janda, associate director of GW’s Center for Alcohol and other Drug Education (CADE) said that CADE works with students to educate them about the risks associated with stimulants.

“The thing with utilizing study drugs is that a lot of people think it’s an easy way out,” Ms. Janda said. “They tend to misunderstand stimulants and think that just because they can read faster and focus longer, they are actually learning.

“These drugs don’t make you smarter and in the long run, when you stop taking them, it can be difficult to slow down and study the right way,” she said.

CADE offers one-on-one, confidential appointments for students who are interested in discussing how drugs can affect their health. If a student is found to need medical attention or mental health counseling, the staff refers him or her to other on- and off-campus resources, such as the University Counseling Center and SHS.

Ms. Janda said that often the root of drug and alcohol use is that students aren’t properly managing their stress levels. She and Dr. Ticknor recommend that during finals students maintain a proper diet, study schedule and—most importantly—sleep.

“These drugs don’t make you smarter and in the long run, when you stop taking them, it can be difficult to slow down and study the right way." - Alexis Janda, associate director of GW Center for Alcohol and other Drug Education

“Students really underestimate the importance of sleeping,” Ms. Janda said. “When you push yourself to do all-nighters, the quality of work and retention of information suffers. The brain needs a moment to breathe every now and then.”

Students, faculty and staff who are concerned about a student’s behavior concerning drugs, alcohol, stress or other issues are also encouraged to fill out a CARE Network form, Ms. Janda said.

Students learned about “Managing Stress During Finals” on Wednesday during the inaugural Twitter chat with Vice Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski.

Looking back on her time at GW, Ms. Buell said that realizing everyone else was going through the stress of finals helped her to take a deep breath and relax.

“I heard so many stories during college, and I would sometimes get frustrated thinking it might make me a better student to use Adderall,” Ms. Buell said. “But the truth is Adderall is not a magic drug that helps you ace your finals.”

“Academic success is more than just grades—it’s about what you’re actually learning,” she said. “I hope that during those high stress times other students realize that they can get through college without using Adderall and maybe manage to learn more without it.”