With a new semester beginning, campus-adjacent pharmacies might do well to stock up on ADHD medications. The startling truth is that the prevalence of ADHD medications on college campuses is astounding and may reflect dangerous misuses of the drugs.
“Study Drug” Abuse Rising
Studies on prescription drug misuse have found that between 7% and 33% of college students have experimented with medications such as Adderall or Ritalin, most of whom obtained the drugs from friends with valid prescriptions. These numbers have increased significantly from the estimated 3.6% abuse rate in 2000. One of the largest contributors to the increase is likely the increase in prescribing rates for prescription stimulants. The more students have legal access to the drugs, the easier it is for others to source the medications.
Does it Work?
Stressed students under pressure from deadlines and heavily-weighted exams often believe that ADHD medications will give them some sort of academic edge. In one large study of American college students, researchers found that most users had academic motivations. Participants were mostly hoping to see the following benefits:
- 72% used the drugs to help them stay awake to study
- 66% wanted help concentrating on work
- 36% thought the drugs would help them with memorization or, as some put it, “being smarter”
By contrast, only 7% of participants used the drugs seeking a high, in contrast to most other drugs found on college campuses.
In more in-depth interviews of selected participants, the researchers found that illicit use was the highest during periods of “heightened academic stress.” That meant that finals season was the height of prescription drug abuse on campus.
But do students actually see these benefits from non-prescription use? The simplest answer is no. Students with diagnosed ADHD tend to suffer from a relatively inactive prefrontal cortex, meaning that they have trouble with attention and focus. For them, prescription stimulants can be life-changing, essentially fixing the brain chemistry to allow a normal attention span. If there is no cognitive deficit to begin with, though, the drugs do very little to affect cognition.
Some studies have noted that ADHD medications can improve performance on rote memory tasks even in adults without ADHD. However, these findings should not be mistaken for evidence that non-prescription use of ADHD meds will improve grades. The slight improvements in rote memory mean nothing for the more complex cognitive tasks necessary to succeed in college-level work. The overall learning process remains unimproved.
A recent study provided further evidence that ADHD medication does not improve academic performance in those who do not have ADHD. Not only did participants not improve on measures of cognitive functioning, but they actually experienced decreases in performance on working memory tasks. While the work still remains to be replicated, this is powerful evidence that self-medication simply will not work for people seeking better grades.
What’s interesting is that most who abuse ADHD medications truly believe that the medications help them. Part of this may be the placebo effect, or a tendency to experience improvement just because we expect a medicine to work. Also, these drugs are stimulants, so users may experience genuine effects such as elevated mood, increased heart rate, or lack of sleep. It’s possible that students confuse these for evidence that the drug is “working”. Dr. Tara White, an assistant professor at Brown and an author on the study, put it this way:
The fact that we see these effects on positive emotion and cardiovascular activity, in the same individuals for whom cognitive effects were small or negative in direction, is important. It indicates that the cognitive and the emotional impact of these drugs are separate. How you feel under the drug does not necessarily mean that there is an improvement in cognition; there can be a decrease, as seen here in young adults without ADHD.
Is it Dangerous?
In short, yes. The importance of a prescription is that a physician has weighed the benefits of you receiving the medicine against the possibility of side effects. For those suffering from ADHD symptoms, a prescription is likely worth it. Much of the danger of self-medication comes from the fact that students are generally uninformed about the proper use and potential side effects of the pills they are taking. They may also take other medications or have other medical conditions that could interact dangerously with ADHD meds. That few students know about these dangers is what makes prescription drug abuse so dangerous.
Potential Side Effects
In rare cases, abuse of these drugs can lead to death or severe side effects such as stroke or heart attack. More common side effects include the following:
- Altered mood
- Racing pulse
Mental Health Effects
It’s very common for ADHD medications to affect mood. They work by affecting the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the reward center of the brain. Tweaking the release of those chemicals can lead to an elevated mood now followed by a subsequent drop in happiness.
Some students may also experience a worsening of depression or anxiety symptoms after using Adderall or Ritalin, which is another risk that should be weighed by a medical professional, not a friend with a pill bottle.
ADHD medications are generally classified as highly addictive. As users take the medication, they may build up a tolerance, eventually requiring larger doses to get the same effect. Users can also develop a dependency on the drugs where they feel that they need the medications to attain a certain mood. Stopping the medications after this occurs could lead to severe withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia and depression, both of which can hamper academic performance.
ADHD medication is great for those who actually need it. But whether or not you need it should be determined by a doctor, and you should never take prescription drugs without medical supervision. Not only is it unlikely that you will get the desired benefits, but you could end up suffering serious side effects.
If you are struggling with stress, anxiety, or are concerned that you might have ADHD, OptiMindHealth can help. Our trained counselors have experience in general counseling and in specialties ranging from college counseling to insomnia treatment. If you’re going through a rough time, don’t turn to self-medication. Talk to us instead.