Only about 15 years ago, the biggest health threats facing college students during finals were a few too many cups of coffee, quick, nutritionally poor microwave dinners and a severe lack of sleep. Now, there is a greater issue facing stressed college students.
A handful of students are now relying on prescription drugs, such as Ritalin and Adderall, to stay focused and complete their assignments.
“I hear a lot more about it now than I ever did before,” said Stacy Andes, director of health promotion at the University.
According to a press release from the Clinton Foundation, the use of stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall among college students increased by 93 percent from 1993 to 2005.
Andes says that since the University began monitoring prescription drug abuse on its campus in 2008, on average, only six percent of the student body admits to such abuse.
Though she acknowledges that the number may be a bit low because some students may be unlikely to consider recreational use once or twice a semester as abuse and, therefore unlikely to report the behavior, she believes that for the most part, the number is an accurate reflection of the situation.
“The typical Adderall abuser fits the profile of who you’d expect to be heavy drinkers,” she said. “White, male, often fraternity members and often already users of other drugs. Usually not the students who are legitimately prescribed.”
“I’ve never taken it,” said Michael Rustemeyer, a graduate student at the University. “I know a guy that could probably tell you something about it though.”
“Taken Adderall?” said Denis Whelan, a senior. “Of course not.”
Though only six percent of the university population uses the drug, its presence is still a major concern, for the vast majority of users are acquiring the drugs from a friend with a prescription.
Andes says that the prescription drugs are not typically purchased from a dealer, like more conventional recreational drugs such as marijuana or cocaine.
Villanova University’s Office of Health Promotion has found that about 50 percent of students with an Adderall prescription for ADHD admit to having shared or sold the drug to a friend.
“There’s not really a dealing and selling culture at Villanova,” Andes said. “It’s mostly being shared with friends. At Villanova we love that idea of ‘community’ but unfortunately, that may also be part of the problem.”
She describes this phenomenon as “compassionate diversion,” and sad that it occurs when an Adderall user with a perscription sees a friend struggling to complete a paper or cram for a test, and wishes to help that friend by offering what he or she believes to be a competitive edge.
However, Andes said what students don’t realize is that the drugs usually don’t offer much of a competitive edge at all.
“A study just came out that shows a significant placebo effect with these,” she said. “They only really helped students with pre-existing cognitive deficiencies.”
She says that historically, any improvement in the quality of work or grades received by these recreational users has been nominal, not of any significant margin.
She notes that the risks associated with the drug are greater than any potential benefits a student might theoretically reap.
An overdose of Adderall can have similar effects to what one might expect from an overdose of any other stimulant, such as nicotine or cocaine: an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and insomnia, to name a few. Andes even says that at times, taking the drug can be counterproductive to a student’s attempt to improve his or her study habits.
“A lot of times they lead to paranoia or OCD-like behavior,” she said. “A student might take some and try to write a paper and the next thing you know they’re cleaning their room for like five hours. They’re focused, but not on anything productive.”
What’s more, she says that professors can often tell immediately whether a student has written a paper on Adderall versus having written it sober.
“They’ll have a paper,” she said. “But it will be all sporadic and disjointed.” Yet some students look past these side effects and swear by the drugs.
“Yeah, I’ve taken it,” said a male undergraduate student who admitted to taking an Adderall tablet last semester in order to complete a paper before the deadline. “I don’t really think it’s that bad. And I was totally focused for like eight hours. Didn’t sleep, but I got it done.”
So where does this idea that “It’s not that bad” come from? It’s a drug that can have a slew of unpleasant side effects, and according to the University’s student guidelines, the “use of prescription medications, without a valid prescription, may result in suspension from the University,” making it prohibited by school code and potentially detrimental to a student’s academic career.
A 2006 study from the Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Crime Justice, published in the Journal of Drug Issues, found that “in terms of physical risks, college students consider prescription drugs safer to use than other drugs because pharmaceuticals are subjected to extensive laboratory testing, are manufactured in clean laboratories by professionals and produce a standard, dose dependent effect. The fact that potential side effects are listed on labels further adds to the perception of a more predictable experience relative to other drugs.”
However, Andes says students’ motives are key. She suggests that students who are taking prescription medications in order to do well in school will see themselves as having much more honorable intentions than the marijuana user who smokes a joint just to get high.
“I don’t think students see prescription drugs as drugs,” she added.
Though its impact may not be widespread, it is clear that as long as this attitude exists, prescription drug abuse will continue to be an issue among college students.