It’s the night before a huge exam. You have just gotten back from a day of classes interlaced with meetings, office hours, short conversations with friends, Facebook, and more meetings. As you open your textbook for the first time all semester, you question if—even with an all-nighter—you have enough time to possibly learn everything you need to know. After checking Facebook one last time, you down a 5-Hour Energy, start studying, and hope for the best.
We have all been there. But for some students, coffee and energy drinks just won’t cut it. Instead, they turn to unprescribed stimulant drugs, such as Adderall and Ritalin, to improve their concentration and enhance their cognitive performance—a practice now known as “academic doping.”
These stimulant drugs work on the brain’s pleasure circuit by releasing and preventing the uptake of the hormones dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, affecting impulse control. Normally prescribed for those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the unprescribed use of these drugs has increased massively among college students nationwide. A 2012 study by Desantis and Hane reports that by their senior year, two-thirds of college students have been offered these drugs with nearly half accepting the offer.
Dr. Thomas Brounk, Director of Mental Health Services at Habif Health and Wellness Center, said that, despite not having any WashU-specific survey data about the usage of these drugs, it is safe to say that our campus mirrors the same trend.
“SHS started seeing increased requests to be evaluated for ADHD [in the past few years to the point that] it became necessary to limit the assessments,” Brounk said.
School officials nationwide are working with psychiatrists, research professors, and law enforcement to devise effective strategies to combat these new statistics. New York Daily News reports that senators are asking some universities, including many in New York, to make changes. Others have already edited their honor codes, declaring the use of these drugs without a prescription as an academic violation of integrity.
However, as schools begin to implement changes in an effort to reduce this drug culture, they are forgetting to assess the problem at its roots. Nonprescription use of ADHD medication has increased more than ever due to culture surrounding today’s college students. With the need to beat the curve, the desire to get into the best graduate school, the harsh employment market, and the immense pressure to succeed in an increasingly competitive society, college students are willing to improve their performance in any way possible. Academic doping is different than any other kind of drug use as the motivation for it lies behind the success the drug promises rather than the sensation from using it.
The effects of the drug can convince students that they are doing what they need to build their future. This creates greater issues: students are less likely to correlate negative effects to Adderall because of its potential positive impacts. A nationwide study published in the Journal of American College Health found that only 2 percent of students found Adderall to be “very dangerous” with 81 percent thinking nonmedical use is “not dangerous at all” or only “slightly dangerous”.
The effects of Adderall, however, are worse than students may suspect. The DAWN Report says that hospitals saw a tripling of ER visits between 2005 and 2010 related to the non-medical use of ADHD stimulant medications. While the effects seem undetectable, Dr. Karen Boesch, psychiatrist at the Habif Health and Wellness Center said “the potential for misuse and abuse is quite real and dangerous,” listing side effects that include severe addiction, high blood pressure, and death.
So what will it take to change the academic culture which pressures students to turn to other avenues to achieve success? “There are no quick and easy answers,” Dr. Brounk said, emphasizing the need to increase awareness and provide education about the use of stimulant drugs.
One WashU student, who chose to remain anonymous, agreed. “When performance is no longer valued as much as it is at this point of my life, I won’t need to take Adderall,” he said. The student suggested a “culture overhaul” on how people view stimulant drugs. “The ideal situation is one in which you can just do your work at your own pace and not have to constantly stress about it,” he said. However, the student added that he recognized the difficulty of changing the basis of an entire culture.
As more research continues to be done, for now, it is best to suppress the urge to reach for study drugs, get that questionable cappuccino from the Whispers vending machine, and try to ignore its unique aftertaste.