The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

71° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Adderall abuse not harmless

It’s time for finals — that point in the year when desperation and anxiety peak, all-nighters are pulled and coffee sales drastically spike.

The coffee industry isn’t the only thing getting a boost from finals pressure, though. The “study drug” use of Adderall and other drugs typically prescribed for attention disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, has increased dramatically among young people to provide the focus and energy needed to do well academically.

Data company IMS Health reports that nearly 16 million prescriptions for the condition were written for Americans aged 20 to 39 in 2012, almost triple the 5.6 million that were written a mere five years before.

Certainly, some of those prescriptions are coming from legitimate cases of ADHD, as doctors get better at diagnosing the disorder and as awareness about it spreads.

However, students are getting better at faking the need for the drug as well. A study published by the American Psychological Assessment compared two groups of college students: those with legitimate diagnoses of ADHD and those who were asked to fake symptoms on standard questionnaires. They were found to be almost indistinguishable.

That’s probably because of the Internet, which provides intrepid students with a detailed list of symptoms to describe. Data from Google shows the search term “Adderall” has grown in popularity since 2005, and — surprise, surprise — spikes every year around finals season, as students get desperate for a quick fix to their workloads.

Steve*, a UA student who requested that his real name be withheld, first started using Adderall during his senior year of high school.

“I had a lot to study for,” he said. “I was in Academic Decathlon, so I had to read a lot, and I’m not a very focused person. So, I bought 20 pills from a friend and used that through my senior year. I use it now maybe twice a week, max.”

The epidemic of “study drug” abuse is hardly a public health emergency, but it is a growing problem.

For one thing, many students regard it as a miracle pill, able to let them pull that last all-nighter or finish a paper strong. Parents, meanwhile, probably regard the drug with more apathy than they would for alcohol, marijuana or other drugs.

After all, it’s just being used to improve academic performance. That’s the epitome of responsible drug use, right?

Even as students flock to “study drugs,” though, it’s important to remember that they are, in fact, drugs with real side effects. Minor ones include headaches, sleeplessness and heart palpitations, but they only escalate from there. The drug can also have serious complications when combined with alcohol, a very real risk for college students.

Long-term use of Adderall can increase the risk of strokes and heart problems. It’s also associated with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and paranoia.

Adderall abuse could also lead to a psychological dependence — making a student unable to perform properly without having taken the drug — or physical dependence, where the brain becomes accustomed to certain levels of dopamine and, when deprived of it, leads to depression and sleep cycle changes.

Steve noted some of these side effects, saying “it’s pretty effective but with major drawbacks, because it stimulates the release of dopamine. But once the dopamine levels start to decline, it makes me pretty anxious and sad, and it’s even harder to focus on my work.”

The biggest problem with this type of drug abuse, however, is the root cause. Students are stressed about balancing grades, work and other accomplishments, and they feel that the only way to amend that is to pop a pill.

Meanwhile, their stress manifests in other ways. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now refers to the lack of sleep in teenagers as an epidemic. Depression and anxiety are on the rise.

All things considered, maybe we should reform a culture that values grades and test scores over physical and mental wellbeing — a culture with symptoms that extend far beyond prescription drug abuse.

*Editor’s note: Student’s name withheld.


Maddie Pickens is an economics freshman. Follow her on Twitter.

More to Discover
Activate Search