Michael* was not pleased with the way his day had gone. It was finals week, his seminar paper was only a few days away from being due, and he was still hundreds of pages behind on his reading. He had planned to spend the day working, but instead spent most of it talking to friends. Now it was past 2 a.m., and the chance of any work getting done was effectively gone.
But it wasn’t just that Michael, a Swarthmore student, had spent the day socializing when he wanted to be working that made him disappointed. Procrastination is nothing new to college students. To Michael, something special had been squandered. “I can’t believe I wasted an entire day of Adderall,” he said.
Adderall is a prime example of a study drug. It is an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medication, but it is frequently used by students in college and high school across the United States without ADHD to help concentrate on work. Frequently, students with prescriptions for these drugs will sell their extra pills to peers who want an additional boost of energy and focus.
Adderall and other ADHD medications like Vyvanse, Concerta, and Ritalin are among the most widely prescribed drugs in the United States. They are also among the most abused. In 2011, the National Institute for Drug Abuse found that 9.8 percent of college students had illegally used Adderall. Recently, the death of Richard Fee, a young college graduate from North Carolina who committed suicide after his prescription for Adderall ran out, has generated a firestorm of media coverage and put a new spotlight on the drug and those similar to it. Fee developed severe depression and underwent psychotic breakdowns after he began heavy use of Adderall and Vyvanse.
“Most of us know of instances where people have abused them either for the purpose of studying or just to get high,” said David Ramirez, the head of Counseling and Psychological Services and a psychologist, who felt that there was a relatively high level of concern among mental health professionals about the abuse of ADHD medications. “People are not passive about this,” he said.
“Taken as prescribed, typically, the side effects that doctors would be worried about are appetite loss and sleep deprivation,” said Ramirez. But when misused, the list of negative side effects grows worse, ranging from dependency to judgment impairment. “You can produce a psychotic state,” he said. Indeed, taken in high enough amounts, it is possible to overdose.
This danger is not lost on students who use the drug without a prescription. “I think the health problems are very real,” said Chris,* another Swattie who, like Michael, has illicitly used Adderall. “Adderall is an amphetamine.”
But for the most part, Chris felt that if used appropriately, the drugs are not particularly risky. “Adderall and Vyvanse are made to be non-addictive,” he said.
Lewis,* a student who has a prescription but only uses the drug on occasion and sells his extras, agreed. Besides difficulty going to bed while on the medication, he felt the only danger came from overuse. “The only health effect that I would say is an issue is taking too many,” he said. He was not worried about his clientele. “I usually never sell more than two,” he said, adding that he knew most of the people he sold to and assumed they were only taking one “for a specific assignment they want to get done.”
But Ramirez emphasized that, at least from his perspective, the dangers were not minimal. “You can definitely create serious health hazards,” he said. “These things are taken pretty seriously.”
Health concerns aside, it is not difficult to see the appeal in using ADHD medications to study. “It’s really helpful,” said Michael. “Once you start on a task, you’re able to continue on that task sort of endlessly. I can start a book and read 300 pages of it,” he added.
“You feel almost obligated to do work,” said Lewis. “You really just keep going until you crash or have nothing else to do.”
Indeed, the drugs can be so effective that it has caused many to question their fairness. Even Chris believed it gave an unjust advantage. “I think it’s ethically wrong,” he said. “It’s like the whole steroid issue, except over millions of millions of people.”
But others, like Michael, disagreed. “Yes it does give me an advantage, but I don’t really think an advantage means anything because I don’t think I’m competing with anyone around me,” he said. “I don’t see why me doing better is going to make anyone else do worse.”
“I think it’s perfectly fair at a school like this,” Lewis said. “There’s not a lot of time in the day.”
Martin Warner, the college’s Registrar, was not overly concerned whether or not drug gave people unfair advantages. “Perhaps, ironically, I’m not worried about the fairness issue. For me, really, it’s a wellness issue,” he said. Warner felt that fairness was not unimportant. But when it came to members of the Swarthmore community, it was health he was focused on. “That’s much more interesting and compelling to me,” he said.
Ramirez was unsure if illicit use of the drug gave students an advantage. “I simply don’t know,” he said.
But when it came to students with ADHD, he was unequivocal. “For the people who need it, it’s an awesome thing,” he said. “It levels the playing field for them. So it’s sad that there’s so much abuse.”
And such abuse is most prevalent, unsurprisingly, at schools where the workload is large and demanding, a category that this college certainly fits. Classes are rigorous, and students seem to make a habit of juggling multiple activities.
Study drugs are present Swarthmore, abet in relatively small numbers. “From what I know, it’s not very big,” said Lewis. His own clientele was not particularly large. “I have a pretty tight group of people I sell to,” he said.
Ramirez agreed, saying that while what he sees at CAPS may not be representative of the school as a whole, it appeared not to be all too frequent. “I don’t think it’s a big problem,” he said.
Still, while study drugs may not be pervasive, they certainly exist. And Swarthmore’s taxing workload can lead to their use.
“I think the intensity of Swarthmore could aggravate a person’s vulnerability to feel unsettled and uncertain,” Ramirez said. This, he said, could in turn lead students to abuse study drugs.
But in general, it appears students here find other ways to cope with the pressures of college. “There are definitely some schools I’ve heard of where Adderall is more legitimate in the sense that to do anything outside of school, you have to take it,” Chris said. But according to him, this college is not one of them. “Most people at Swarthmore are good at managing their time in that sense.”
*Michael, Chris, and Lewis are all pseudonyms. The students prefer to remain anonymous.