People with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) struggle to focus; compared to other people the same age, they have greater difficulty paying attention or may be more hyperactive or impulsive. These behaviors can interfere with personal relationships, social skills, and academic performance. Although there is no “cure” for this disorder, one common treatment approach to alleviate the symptoms of ADHD is the use of prescription stimulant drugs, such as Adderall or Ritalin. ADHD diagnoses have increased over the years; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2011, 11% of Americans aged 4-17 were diagnosed with ADHD. Many of these people use prescription stimulants to manage their symptoms. While stimulant drugs have helped many, some people purposely misuse or abuse them, either to get high or for study drugs in college or even high school. In recent years, reports of using Adderall as a study drug have increased. But does studying on Adderall truly offer any academic benefits? And what are the risks associated with study drugs in college?

How Does Adderall Work?

Adderall is a stimulant drug, meaning that it speeds up the whole body, and it specifically increases dopamine levels in the brain. Increased dopamine levels cause improved attention, movement, and pleasure. Although it may seem counterintuitive, for people with ADHD, speeding up the brain actually allows them to focus. Stimulant drugs work by directing the brain’s activity toward just one task instead of flitting about from thought to thought or activity to activity. Adderall can help ease the symptoms of ADHD; in doing so, many patients experience improved self-esteem, thinking ability, and social and family interactions. As a stimulant, Adderall is intended to cause:

  • Increased alertness
  • Increased attention
  • Increased energy
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Narrow blood vessels
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Open breathing passages

Side Effects of Adderall

People who intentionally abuse Adderall may experience unintended side effects, especially at high doses. Side effects include:

  • Dangerously high body temperature
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart failure
  • Seizures

When abused over long periods of time, it can cause:

  • Heart problems
  • Psychosis
  • Anger
  • Paranoia

While most people who abuse Adderall simply consume the pills, some people inject it, putting themselves at greater risk of blood-borne pathogens, such as HIV and hepatitis, from shared needles. People who take Adderall in combination with alcohol are a greater risk of alcohol poisoning; since the stimulant effect of Adderall masks the depressant effect of alcohol, it is easy to drink too much without realizing it.

Because Adderall is addictive when abused, people who misuse it, then discontinue it, may experience symptoms of withdrawal including:

  • Depression
  • Tiredness
  • Sleep problems

Due to the risks that come with Adderall abuse, Adderall and other ADHD stimulant treatments come with a “Black Box” warning so that users are aware of the potential consequences of misuse, which include:

  • Sudden death
  • Serious adverse cardiovascular events
  • High potential for abuse

Studying on Adderall

In spite of the potential negative consequences, it is not difficult to understand the appeal of Adderall to college students with heavy workloads. Increased alertness, attention, and energy levels seem like they would help any student’s performance. Moreover, if a student perceives that other students are using so-called “cognitive enhancement” drugs, he or she may feel pressured to do the same, just to keep up. Just how widespread is the use of study drugs in college?

Surveys at several colleges indicate that misuse of Adderall and other stimulants is fairly common and widely accepted on college campuses today. One study at the University of Kentucky indicated that as many as half of juniors and seniors there had used stimulants without a prescription. The general student opinion was that the use of Adderall as a study drug was as dangerous as drinking an energy drink. There was little or no taboo against it. Other studies of colleges and nearby police departments show low efforts by local law enforcement to crack down on students taking drugs prescribed for someone else. With so many students possessing legitimate prescriptions, it is very hard to crack down on misuse.

Students misusing Adderall claim they do so in hopes of greater academic success, but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, several studies indicate that, for people who do not have ADHD, stimulants such as Adderall offer no academic benefit. Stimulant drugs do increase wakefulness in any individual but do not cause improved learning or thinking ability. In addition, research indicates that students who abuse prescription stimulants actually have lower GPAs in high school and in college than those who do not. Why is this so?

One important factor is the profile of the type of students who misuse Adderall, termed “non-medical users.” On average, students who are nonmedical users are more likely than other students to:

  • Skip class regularly
  • Study less frequently
  • Drink heavily
  • Use illicit drugs
  • Use Adderall recreationally, not just when studying

This profile suggests that students who claim they are using Adderall as a study drug are more likely using it as a replacement for actual studying or class attendance. They may also be struggling students who already have a problem with drug or alcohol use. In light of this evidence, students who are nonmedical users of prescription students should not be viewed as students trying to gain an academic edge but more likely as individuals with a pattern of illicit drug use that is or could become a substance abuse problem.

Case Study of Adderall Abuse

An interview with “Mike” and “Jenny” (not their real names) captures the attitudes of undergraduate students who use prescription ADHD medications such as Adderall as a study drug, hoping to increase their academic success. Both students claim that on-campus use of these drugs for study enhancement is fairly common; they likened it to professional athletes using steroids. The students felt that in order to complete their heavy workload and remain competitive with other students, they needed to study “nonstop,” and that taking Adderall allowed them to do just that. Neither expressed any concern about taking someone else’s prescription, either in terms of their own health or in terms of any legal or ethical implications. Supply of Adderall or other stimulants did not seem to be a challenge; students with a genuine prescription for Adderall could easily sell any unused pills. Other reports suggest that students will even share their medication, free of charge, illustrating the casual attitude many college students have toward the non-medical use of stimulant drugs.

Steps to Prevent Misuse of Study Drugs in College

In light of the prevalence of Adderall misuse on college campuses today, researchers from the University of Maryland suggest the following steps to curb nonmedical use of stimulant drugs:

  • Use factual evidence against popular myths that misuse is harmless
  • Highlight legal risks of sharing or selling prescription drugs
  • Encourage physicians to more vigilantly monitor prescription drug users to prevent diversion
  • Empower parents to prevent their children from misusing prescription stimulants
  • Develop campus action plans to reduce nonmedical prescription drug use
  • Destigmatize college students who will not share drugs
  • Develop early intervention strategies to assess risk of serious substance abuse problems and promote programs to prevent that

If you or someone you love struggles with Adderall abuse, call our toll-free number today. Help is available.