My first year at Swarthmore, a friend of mine who takes Adderall by prescription received a series of texts from a couple of different upperclassmen. Only a few weeks into the school year, they had already heard that she had access to Adderall and were asking her if she was willing to sell. This was my first exposure to the misuse of Adderall on campus. Since then, I’ve heard countless stories of students on campus abusing Adderall, Ritalin, and other ADHD medications to cram for tests, papers and projects.
The misuse and abuse of Adderall in higher education is far too common. In a CNN article, reporter Arianna Yanes cites a statistic that says that while numbers vary between schools, an estimated 30 percent of students use ADHD medication without a medical need. Yanes also reports on University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research associate professor Sean McCabe, who has observed an increase in the use of these medications by undiagnosed undergraduate students.
To begin with, the misuse of Adderall and the like is unsafe and accompanied by a slew of side effects. In addition to immediate side effects, after working with what he dubbed “clients,” Swarthmore’s Alcohol and Drugs Counselor and Educator Josh Ellow has noticed a few recurring symptoms when it comes to ADHD medication abuse. Ellow writes, “One is unwanted side effects relating to anxiety. In extreme cases, this can lead to psychosis or uncomfortable paranoia. Related to this effect is trouble sleeping, which intensifies the ‘rebound’ effect of this drug while the body returns to its set point.” All of this contributes to the unhealthy cycle that study drug dependency can lead to.
Secondly, I believe the use of study drugs by those without a diagnosed need does not further the user’s education or learning. Abusing Adderall simply gives you a boost in the moment, but does not give you the long-term benefit of truly learning and comprehending. While discussing this topic, a friend of mine drew a metaphor to steroids and running. While using steroids may give you an immediate boost and lower your mile time, it doesn’t help you maintain that time later the way that working out every space and bettering your body would. Studying and learning is to the brain and intelligence as working out is to the muscles of the body.
I believe that relying on Adderall and similar drugs in order to complete schoolwork at the last minute is not a healthy way to live. In addition to abusing their bodies, those misusing ADHD medications at Swarthmore are probably simply overcommitted. It’s important to learn to say no and drop extracurricular activities when they are just too much. Swatties are notoriously overworked and continuously stressed. We think we can handle it all, but that’s not true. This is not to say you won’t find me cramming — having nights like that is a part of the Swarthmore experience. But if they become so common that a student has to rely on drugs to survive academically, it may be time for a lifestyle change. While misusing Adderall and the like can create the impression of balancing everything, it is unsustainable. Falling into a cycle of study drug dependency is destructive and not a true achievement of life balance and academic success. The sooner Swatties learn their actual limitations, the easier it will be to be healthier and happier.
Adderall, Ritalin, and other ADHD medications exist to aid those who truly need the chemical aid to concentrate and focus on work. Cappy Pitts ‘16, who is prescribed Adderall, speaks negatively of its effects. She only takes it because she medically needs it in order to focus for normal periods of time. Pitts says that she does not like how the medication alters her mood and personality and does not understand why anyone who doesn’t need it would subject themselves to that. Another student prescribed Adderall, who chose to remain anonymous due to fear of fellow students asking to buy or even stealing her medication, also agrees with Pitts. Furthermore, she believes that students using ADHD medicine who do not medically need it gain an unfair advantage. To her, using Adderall puts her on the same academic playing field as those without ADHD. So the use of Adderall by those who can concentrate and function normally gain an additional boost, which, in her opinion, skews the fragilely created equity.
I’m a strong believer of giving your all and working hard to achieve your goals, but if it takes resorting to study drugs, in my opinion, it is simply not worth it. There’s no denying that Swarthmore is an academically demanding school. I’ve had my fair share of academic struggles and as a fall semester first-year, seeing upperclassmen that I respected and perceived to be academically successful engage in the misuse of Adderall definitely led me to think that it was the only way to survive. That’s why it is important to remember that there are safer alternatives to managing academics like free tutors, help sessions, academic deans, and perhaps most helpful, the option to take up to four courses after first-year fall as credit/no credit. If all this is still not enough, and the rates of ADHD medication misuse at Swarthmore and other colleges continue to rise, then perhaps higher education needs to reevaluate its academic system and reconsider the demands they place on young adults.