Finals week is an incredibly stressful time. No matter how well you plan, somehow it seems there is just never enough time. In recent years, more and more college and high school students have been turning to prescription medication to help them through stressful academic times. The most commonly used drug is Adderall, which is prescribed to people with ADHD to help them focus. Adderall and other ADHD medications have grown in popularity on college campuss and it’s easy to see why.
Adderall is not referred to as a “study drug” for nothing. Its primary effect is to increase one’s focus, which can range from sitting still for a class period to writing a paper without getting distracted every five minutes. It is no secret that everyone gets distracted and that at some point everyone has trouble paying attention. That does not mean that everyone needs Adderall. People diagnosed with ADHD often lack the ability to actually sit still or focus, no matter how hard they try. From personal experience, I can say it is very frustrating. Using Adderall allows people with ADHD to gain more control over their daily lives. So why the sudden increase in people without ADHD using these drugs?
The answer to that is simple. The drugs do increase productivity dramatically, and when taken by a person who does not need them, I can only imagine that effect is heightened. Lasting anywhere from 6-8 hours, taking just one dose can give students the opportunity to accomplish a substantial amount. Another useful side effect—especially during finals—is that these drugs keep you awake. If you take one at 8 p.m., the odds of sleeping that night are slim to none. With all of these apparent benefits, it is no wonder that they are a growing problem among college students.
Last February The New York Times ran an article called “Drowned in a Stream of Prescriptions,” about a 24-year-old college student, Richard Fee, who committed suicide after becoming addicted to Adderall. In Fee’s case, he had started using Adderall in college to cram for exams. After college, he applied to medical school and found that Adderall gave him the competitive edge necessary to keep up with the demanding work. He visited a doctor, who diagnosed him with ADHD, even though he had never received a prior diagnosis. The Times focused on the increasing number of young adults willing to fake symptoms to get a prescription, as well as the doctors who do not do a comprehensive evaluation before prescribing medication. As the article’s author, Alan Schwarz sees it, the problem has two components. In 2011, nearly 14 million monthly prescriptions for ADHD medication were written for Americans age 20-31, in contrast to only 5.6 million four years previously. The process used to diagnose ADHD needs serious revision because it is often quite challenging to accurately diagnose. The second half of the problem lies with the students and young adults who actively seek out these medications.
Many students do not realize that buying or receiving Adderall from a friend with a prescription is a federal crime. Adderall and the other stimulant drugs in the ADHD medication family are classified as Schedule II drugs, the same category cocaine is in. This is because of the highly addictive nature of the medication. In 2006, a study in the journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence claimed that about 10 percent of those who misuse ADHD stimulant medication became addicted. Even when properly perscribed by a doctor, these drugs can trigger psychotic behavior or suicidal thoughts in about one out of 400 patients, according to a 2006 study in The American Journal of Psychiatry. While these numbers are rather unimpressive, with the growing use of the drugs, the risk rises. Often when students use “study drugs” for finals week, they don’t think about taking that next step, actually getting a prescription. Why? Adderall is fairly easy to get, especially on a college campus. What many do not realize is that by using the drugs, they are potentially setting themselves up to fall into a pattern. If someone takes Adderall and gets outstanding grades on their finals, why wouldn’t they want to repeat that? It becomes a habit.
When it comes down to it, the choice to refrain from using study drugs during exams is a moral one. Yes, using the drugs will most likely give you an edge. But there is always the risk that something could go wrong or that the side effects might overshadow the effectiveness of the medication. The side effects of ADHD medication vary from drug to drug, but generally the first few times taking it results in headaches, drastically suppressed appetite and inability to sleep, even after the drug has worn off. If a person has an underlying heart condition, the risks of a serious health issue arising are even higher. The health risks aside, it is really the morality of the act that should be considered. Specifically, people should ask themselves, “Do I really need this?” Usually, the answer is no. If you can get by without the drugs during the semester, what should be any different about finals? So this December, before you turn to “study drugs,” consider actually putting in the time and energy to do well on your finals without prescription aid. Odds are, you can do it.