Why You Should Think Twice Before Using Study Drugs

April 29th 2015

Kathleen Toohill

When I sat down to write this article about the abuse of study drugs among college students, I realized that I was lacking exactly what many of these students are chasing: focus. I checked Twitter, chewed gum, checked Twitter again, filled up my water bottle, checked Twitter, and got another piece of gum because my first piece had lost its flavor. 

With any deadline, whether for an article, thesis, or presentation, a decrease in the time we have left to complete the project doesn’t necessarily correlate with an increase in productivity. Many overwhelmed college students turn to so-called “study drugs” like Adderall and Ritalin (which are typically prescribed for ADHD) in the face of mounting pressure and looming deadlines. 

When prescribed under a doctor’s supervision, Adderall can help patients concentrate and fidget less through a combination of stimulants that help balance neurotransmitters, according to WebMD. When misused by those without a prescription, Adderall can cause addiction, withdrawal, and other complications upon interacting with other drugs. 

How many college students use study drugs?

A study published in the American Journal of College Health in 2012 reported that almost two thirds of college students had been offered what the study referred to as “prescription stimulants for nonmedical use” (NPS) and around one third of students had tried them. A 2014 study referenced in a recent Her Campus piece about study drugs cited a slightly lower number of college NPS users: one in five. According to an article in Medscape, which analyzed the results reported by 30 different studies, the average percentage of college study drug users is 17 percent.  

According to the 2012 study from the American Journal of College Health, NPS use often appears in association with lower grades, participation in Greek life, and higher rates of alcohol consumption. A Daily Beast report on Adderall abuse described the typical abuser, based on a 2005 study from the University of Michigan, as white and male, likely attending a highly selective university.  

How do so many students have access to these drugs?

Students often receive or buy Adderall or Ritalin from friends with prescriptions, or in some cases, obtain false ADHD diagnoses by figuring out what answers to report in the diagnosis survey. While many students who abuse Adderall and other similar drugs report using these drugs to study, others report taking them before parties or to lose weight. 

Despite the potential side effects and risks of taking a drug that they were not prescribed, many college students say that they don’t view taking Adderall and other study drugs as risky. 

"The fact that it's illegal really doesn't cross my mind," one student told CNN in 2014. "It's not something that I get nervous about because it's so widespread and simple."

What are the potential risks?

Adderall misuse -- taking it for non-medical reasons -- can lead to blood pressure and heart problems, as well as addiction. Given that Adderall is a stimulant "it has a high potential for dependence or abuse and can also increase the risk of heart attack or stroke, anxiety, and headaches," BU Today reported.

Adderall can also interact with alcohol and other drugs. WebMD warns that mixing Adderall with MAO inhibitors can be fatal, and suggests that patients taking Adderall limit caffeine intake—another recommendation that college students on a time crunch likely aren’t aware of or abiding by. 

In 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that in 2011, there were four times more emergency room visits caused by ADHD drugs (including Adderall, Ritalin and others) among 18-34 year-olds than in 2007. Thirty percent of the 2011 emergency room visits also involved alcohol. 

Beyond the physical risks, the mental risks of Adderall misuse are also high. Clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Todd Essig wrote in Forbes:

"Separate from the risks of addiction, these 3 are significant psychological costs to brain doping. By keeping in mind that study-drugs will undermine creativity, confidence, and the capacity for strategic renewal people can make more informed choices as to when to use them and when not to use them. Don’t forget: Performance enhancing drugs are always performance impairing drugs as well."

As a (somewhat) recent college graduate, I can attest to the fact that deadlines and pressure don’t disappear the day you throw your graduation cap into the air. Finding ways to cope with stress, whether through counseling, exercise, meditation or other strategies, is a valuable investment of time and money. Relying on a pill as a crutch can be dangerous and habit-forming, if not fatal—not quite worth that short-term productivity boost.