A little blue pill, popped one hour before a student hits the library, is now considered a key to getting A’s in college. College students are relying on drugs like Adderall and Vyvanse to meet the strains of a competitive college curriculum.
They use the stimulants, dubbed “study drugs,” to boost their focus while meeting the pressure to have a social life, do extra curricular activities, have a job and get good grades.
However, many students who take the drugs do not have a prescription. A lot of them get the drugs from friends, seeking a boost to handle all the tasks they face as college students.
The search for a boost has been around for a while. University of Kentucky-Lexington students in a 2007 study said they believed taking stimulants without a prescription was all right because they were doing it for the right reason—getting good grades.
This study, conducted by Alan DeSantis, a professor of communications at the university, found that 34 percent of participants used stimulants illegally. Participants were 175 undergraduate students at the university.
The true purpose of these medications, which increase a person’s concentration and productivity, is to treat ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Dr. Carver Nebbe, a psychiatrist at the Thielen Student Health Center at Iowa State University, said he believes there is a widespread use of stimulants on that campus, both prescribed and not prescribed. He added in an IowaWatch interview that he’s seen a large increase in demand for ADHD evaluations over the last few years.
Nebbe said the drug use could be happening “because it makes what is probably the most difficult cognitive act – intense concentration – much easier.”
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health published a report in 2009 stating that full-time college students ages 18 to 22 were twice as likely to use Adderall for non-medical reasons than part-time students. This could be attributed to full-time students having a more demanding course load.
Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse are just a few drugs that can boost a person’s focus. The drugs are amphetamine and dextroamphetamine combined.
Some who are prescribed these stimulants see it as an opportunity to make cash. Using or selling these drugs without a prescription is a felony, but that doesn’t stop students across the country from doing it. Multiple reports on the topic and IowaWatch interviews reveal that pills typically sell for around $5, although the price can jump to as high as $25 during midterms or finals.
REAL NEED FOR THE MEDICINES
Blood work or DNA testing is not used to determine if someone has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and ADHD, the Attention Deficit Disorder Association states. Instead, patients must go through a thorough psychiatric and physical examination. This is usually done by conducting detailed interviews and several symptom-rating scales. Physicians conducting this test must have extensive knowledge about ADD/ADHD because other conditions can often mimic them, the association states.
Despite the illegal sales students with diagnosed mental diseases need the medicine, interviews showed. Their experiences explain the attraction for those who do not need it.
“When I am on my medicine I want to write everything,” said Mackie Furlong, 22, a University of Iowa senior from Western Springs, Ill., who is prescribed Vyvanse and Adderall for her ADHD. “Even if we don’t have to take notes, I still do. I just love being productively busy when I’m on the medicine.”
Furlong is studying social work. She said she is prescribed 50 mg of Vyvanse, which she takes five to six times a week, and 10 mg Adderall boosters, which help make her medicine stronger later in the day if she has class or studying to do.
While these medications are known to increase productivity and attention, that doesn’t always mean productivity for school.
“If I’m supposed to write a paper, and I want to clean my room, I’m going to clean my room. I get productive about the wrong things,” said Kristin Jokela, 22, of Lombard, Ill., a senior in the University of Iowa College of Nursing. Jokela is prescribed 25 mg of extended release Adderall for ADD.
Jokela said getting Adderall on the Iowa City campus is easy because some people who are prescribed don’t take it every day, so they sell the leftovers. Jokela said she does not do this.
“With the students that do buy it from other students on occasion, or regularly, they do not seem to see any harm in taking it,” Tricia Borelli, director of counseling services at Loras College, said. “It can almost be comparable to an over-the-counter medication for them. They do not seem concerned about side effects.”
In fact, Adderall has become so blasé that a Twitter account called “@AdderallHadMe” exists to make light of the effects of Adderall. One tweet from Nov. 3, 2014, said, “Adderall had me opening a bunch of fortune cookies and becoming fluent in Chinese.” However, the account has not produced many posts; the most recent was Dec. 24, 2014.
WARNINGS TO BE HEEDED
While parodies make light of Adderall use in the college culture, the drug can have unpleasant side affects.
Shelley O’Connell, executive director of health and recreation services at the University of Northern Iowa, said these negative side effects can include insomnia, irritability, potentially irreversible tics, psychosis, potential for abuse and drug dependence, withdrawal when stopping the medications, cardiomyopathy, hypertension, stroke, seizures, and even possibly sudden cardiac death.
Loss of appetite is another common side affect of stimulants, which can lead to weight loss if the medication is abused. Jokela said, “I have bad blood circulation, so my toes turn purple. And sometimes I forget to eat.”
Furlong said she eats less while on her medicine and feels moody and has headaches when coming down from it.
If these stimulants are abused and not monitored through a prescription, addiction is feasible.
“Often times underlying mental illness becomes more apparent during college years, so there may be an association without a true causation related to addiction in college students,” Dr. Matthew Cantrell, a clinical associate professor of pharmacy at the University of Iowa, said. “Some college students may be more impressionable or feel pressured to perform, whether it be the demands of a busy academic schedule or work schedule.”
Abuse becomes even easier when the drug is used in a party setting instead of for productivity. Partiers often ingest the drug by crushing it and snorting it, dangerous because of the rapid increase in bloodstream concentration. Snorting the drug can cause respiratory problems, destruction of nasal and lung tissue, and long-term effects can be developmental issues in the brain or death.
The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies Adderall as a Schedule II drug, meaning it has high potential for dependence. Other Schedule II drugs are methamphetamine and cocaine.
The stimulants are C-II medications, the most highly regulated prescription medications that even when used for legitimate medical purposes have the potential for abuse and dependence, Cantrell said.
The false idea of stimulants being harmless draws people in, believing that Adderall and similar drugs are safe to take even without a prescription.
“Since you can function on Adderall you can go to work or drive and not even know it, it really isn’t like a real drug. Like alcohol, you could never really function if you are really drunk,” said a student in DeSantis’ Kentucky study.
Loras’ Borelli had a different view: “Short-term effects can be that students are more efficient, which only perpetuates their desire to keep using, which can lead to dependency.”
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This IowaWatch story was republished by The Des Moines Register, The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA), Iowa City Press-Citizen and Iowa State Daily under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.