Students look to medication for academic edge

With finals approaching, students turn to drugs like Adderall to focus and more efficiently get their work done. However, psychologists believe Adderall does not have significant benefits and may actually harm students. (Photo by Jenn Allen)

On the brink of stressful study sessions and exhaustive final exams, many students looking for a cognitive edge seek prescription pills to get their cramming fix.

Used to treat attention deficit hyperactive disorder, Adderall and other psycho-stimulants are commonly abused by non-ADHD college students who face increasingly competitive access to job markets, psychology graduate student Meghan Garvey said.

As a clinical psychology therapist at ASU, Garvey is involved in evaluating potential ADHD students referred from the Student Health Center.

She said Adderall abuse is an ever-growing concern among education administrators and professors because many students stretch the impact of their symptoms to gain access to medication, which they think will help them perform better on tests.

“It’s not something you can give a person a blood test for or hook them up to a heart monitor,” she said.

However, studies of large samples of non-ADHD students who take psycho-stimulants for educational advantages show relatively no improvement in their GPA, Garvey said.

“There isn’t a significant gain, and there is great concern for their health,” she said. “(Non-ADHD) students who get it from a friend or someone who is selling it could be suffering from some other psychological disorder, like depression, that is preventing them from staying awake or staying focused.”

She said studies have found that stimulant use in non-ADHD adults might improve learning retention and help facilitate memory consolidation but may also impair performance on other tasks that require them to be able to think creatively or adaptively.

Up to 35 percent of students use prescription stimulants non-medically, according to a study of 119 colleges in the 2009 Journal of Attention Disorders.

Risk factors for nonmedical use included being Caucasian, membership in a fraternity or sorority, having a low GPA and attending highly competitive colleges.

More than half the students who misused ADHD medication did so exclusively to enhance their academic performance and most felt that it was generally effective in producing the desired result, according to the study.

Business law and political science senior Jeff Stern said he does not have ADHD, but he gets Adderall from a friend who has a prescription and takes it every time he has an important test to study for.

“My GPA was 3.1 when I started taking it sophomore year, and now it is up to 3.56,” he said.

Stern said he thinks it gives him an unfair advantage, but he does not feel immoral about his decision, nor is he worried about harmful side effects or developing a tolerance.

He said taking Adderall helps him cover a week’s worth of studying in just one night.

“I just don’t have time or don’t want to study for a week long,” he said. “I don’t sleep properly for the next couple of nights, and I may feel kind of out of it, but I am trying to get into law school, and sometimes I need it.”

Psychology professor Federico Sanabria said low doses of stimulant drugs don’t usually lead to tolerance or dependence when taken orally because they are absorbed in the stomach, making them less effective.

However, Sanabria said students sometimes turn pills into powder to inhale them, or even inject them straight into the bloodstream like heroin, which has a large effect on developing a tolerance.

“Initially the drug, inhaled or injected, may be very effective, but it may stop being effective if the route of administration is changed,” he said. “Then the dose must be increased to obtain effective results, up until the point where dependence to the substance develops.”

Sanabria works with rats that exhibit ADHD-like behavior. He said experiments have shown people often do well when given low doses of stimulants to aid in executing boring tasks involving memory or sustained attention.

He said high doses of a stimulant are often problematic and interfere with performance.

Biology sophomore Deanna Driss said she tried Adderall once but will not use it again.

“The one time I took it, I was in the library the entire night, but I got nothing done,” she said. “I just told my friend my entire life story.”

Biology junior Kevin Crommelin said he has friends with ADHD who give him their medication when he needs it.

Crommelin said he doesn’t take it often, but he feels it provides him a needed boost.

“People need it because college is really competitive,” he said. “With heavy workloads at school and at work, it allows you to get more studying done in a condensed amount of time.”

Business communications freshman Honi St. Marie-Lloyd said she would not use Adderall because she thinks it is unethical for those who don’t have ADHD.

However, she said the line is blurred because everyone probably has some degree of ADHD.

“The idea of taking Adderall is tempting, especially during finals,” she said. “I couldn’t feel good about myself if I took it.  I’d rather fail and feel good about it.”

The Arizona Board of Regent’s Student Code of Conduct prohibits the unauthorized use, sale, possession or distribution of any controlled substance or illegal drug that would violate the law.

 

Reach the reporter at npmendo@asu.edu