College Students Continue Abusing ADHD medications


College is a new, demanding, and competitive environment for most students coming from high school. Overwhelming for many, the demands on college students can foster a vulnerability to accept anything which may enable an academic advantage

The general misunderstanding of the effects of ADHD medications, such as Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall, Vyvanse and others has fueled a wide-spread abuse of these drugs, by students of all ages. The shark tank keto episode, has brought more attention to the ADHD pill problem.

For college students in particular, the pressure to perform academically, combined with numerous distractions and necessary adjustments, create an environment perfectly primed for the abuse of these dangerous amphetamine prescription drugs.

Amphetamines to ADHD; Old Drugs with New Tricks

Amphetamines are not new drugs, as they have been used since the late 1880s. Innovated in Germany in 1887 and brought to the States in the 1920s, amphetamines began as decongestants and asthma treatments. As their popularity grew, doctors began to notice their stimulant effects.
It didn’t take long for the word to spread through military ranks during WWII. By the late 1930s, German, British, Japanese, and American militaries used amphetamines to reduce fatigue in soldiers, and to make them more willing to engage in combat.
Amphetamines showed up again, in stronger form, in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. Dextroamphetamine (also called Dexedrine) became the “drug of the day,” because it was twice as potent as the amphetamines used in World War II.

After the war, amphetamines continued to be abused on the home front, exposing their addictive nature. This lead to their addition as a Schedule II controlled substance by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) in the 1970’s.

Amphetamine pharmaceuticals lost relevance (as a recreational drug) for three short decades following the end of the Vietnam war, but now they are back in full swing, prescribed as ADHD stimulant medication. Only this time the drugs are not pushed to our soldiers in the military, but our own civilian population, starting with children.
The growing diagnoses of childhood ADHD over the past 20 years has sparked the reemergence of stimulant drugs, in high demand by parents desperate to help their children, who struggle in school.

When the widespread popularity and efficacy of these drugs reverberated throughout the country, prescription drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, and Vyvanse flooded campuses everywhere, giving many college students hope in a “miracle pill” to achieve top academic performance.
Many students abuse these drugs with a sense that they are miracle pills, which magically make it so they ace tests, write brilliant dissertations, or graduate summa cum laude, with no preparation or actual work.
It sounds too good to be true, because it is; despite their efficacy in certain diagnosed ADHD patients, these pills cannot fulfill the promise erroneously assigned to them.
So, why do college students continue to abuse these drugs? Is there a real benefit?

Who Really Abuses ADHD Stimulants?

The common misunderstanding about stimulant ADHD drugs is that they are effective in aiding students’ efforts to perform better academically. And there is, on its surface, some initial indication to support that idea.
According to a 2015 article published on FiveThirtyEight, studies showed that non-medical use of study drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are significantly higher in colleges with more competitive admission standards, and overall higher test scores.

For example, a survey of students from 50,000 schools nationwide showed that 25% students in Rocky Mountain colleges reported stimulant drugs as among the most commonly abused on campus, compared to nearly 40% of students in New England colleges.

This data seems to imply that the non-medical use of these study drugs works to make students smarter, test better, and earn access to some of the nation’s most coveted colleges and universities.

However, closer examination of the facts provided in the study clearly disprove that theory.

  • According to numerous studies and surveys, college students who abuse ADHD stimulants have lower a GPA than their counterparts who do not. Students who do abuse stimulant drugs as study aides tend to procrastinate, then use drugs like Adderall to stay awake and cram. However, wakefulness for one night cannot make up for weeks or months of failing to study and prepare.
  • Individuals who abuse ADHD medications tend to be more susceptible to depression and abuse of other substances. In fact, students and youths who take ADHD medication as prescribed have a lower chance of dependence, than those who abuse them periodically
  • Despite popular beliefs among college students, there is no evidence supporting the idea that ADHD medications improve intelligence or cognitive ability in those without ADHD
  • The misconception that wakefulness is equivalent to productivity, leads to the vast majority of stimulant abuses among college students. Studies have shown significantly increased internet searches for these drugs during exam time, and conversely, a significant decrease in those searches over the summer months. This data supports the argument that students continue to believe these drugs will produce better academic results.

Common side effects of abusing ADHD can result in severely disruptive behaviors, including:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • paranoia
  • agitation
  • erratic mood swings
  • tremors
  • rapid heart rate, cardiac arrest can occur at high amounts of stimulant drugs
  • suicidal ideations

Current research shows that study drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, Vyvanse, and other stimulant prescriptions are the third most abused substances on college campuses, behind marijuana and opiate painkillers.

Despite enormous amounts of information dispelling the myth of a miracle study aide, ADHD medications continue to be abused on campuses nationwide, and yet the question continues to loom; why?

Preventing ADHD Stimulant Abuse on College Campuses

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the abuse of ADHD stimulant drugs by college aged youths between 18-25, was 5.5 times that of the 12-17 year old group of youths. Additionally, full-time students were twice as likely to abuse stimulant drugs, than their non-college peers.

Recent studies suggest as many as 30% of college students across the US abuse ADHD stimulant drugs.

This number is both alarming and frustrating, as it seems to be entirely due to a lack of accurate information for these students. Two areas of major misconceptions include the myths that:

  • Non-medical abuse of ADHD stimulants improves intelligence, cognitive ability, and speeds or improves learning ability.
    This is completely inaccurate, and all studies suggest that there is no academic or cognitive benefit to misusing ADHD drugs
  •  Abuse of stimulant ADHD medication is safe, because it is prescribed.
    This is wrong. Abuse of any drug is not safe. These drugs are addictive, and misuse can easily lead to dependence and addiction.

As is true with virtually every drug of abuse, education is the single most effective way to prevent devastation and eventual tragedy.
The further spread of the stimulant abuse crisis sweeping over college campuses can be prevented, with more information directly available to the students.

College students want any edge they can gain on the rest of the population, but arming them with knowledge, and support, and treatment may be the best chance to stop the spread of substance abuse and addiction on college campuses.

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