It was senior Alicia Rivera’s first semester at Syracuse University, and she had three final exams in one day. She was overwhelmed with studying. Her roommate suggested taking Adderall, a prescription medication that can be used as a study drug but is prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, to get her work done.
Rivera, who was not prescribed, took two pills that morning and then another right before her second test, which she got from a boy sitting next to her in class. She didn’t know his name or the dosage he gave her. She later described the drug’s resulting effects as “severe.”
“I was sweating bullets, my hands were shaking, my heart was beating so fast,” Rivera recalled. “There was a point where I was really worried that the feeling wasn’t going to end.”
More than 18 hours after she took the drugs, Rivera finally started to feel normal and was able to sleep. She said she was “shook” from the experience.
Rivera isn’t alone. The Drug Enforcement Agency reported in 2016 that nearly 12 percent of college students admitted to using prescription drugs they had no recent prescription for. Rivera said she has not taken Adderall, or any other drug for ADHD, since then.
Drug abuse is defined as taking a prescribed drug without a prescription, or taking more than the doctor-assigned dosage of a drug. Common on college campuses is the abuse of amphetamine, a stimulant used to treat ADHD.
Common brands include Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse, and dosages for those drugs can range from 5 milligrams to 70 milligrams or more. Students can take these drugs to improve concentration, stay awake and, in some cases, suppress their appetites.
Dessa Bergen-Cico, a public health professor at SU, said she thinks the number of students abusing these drugs is higher than the DEA has reported. Every semester, she asks her addiction studies class to raise their hands if they use Adderall recreationally or as a study drug. Every semester, the same number of hands goes up: about 50 percent of the class.
“It’s insane,” she said. “This is the way students are compensating for not getting their work done. They think they can fix everything with medication.”
College students are more likely to use prescription drugs than non-college students. The next most popular drug, Ritalin, was used by 2.4 percent of college students.
“If you are a college student, in a high-pressure academic environment, you have a higher risk of becoming addicted to stimulants,” said Peggy Compton, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania.
Compton said the abuse of so-called study drugs on college campuses is a “normative” problem. Students with a history of addiction or students diagnosed with depression or anxiety disorders are most at risk she said.
Bergen-Cico agrees that taking medication to concentrate is nothing new, but the types of medication used have changed and the frequency of prescription drug abuse has increased. When she was in college, in the 1980s, undergraduates would take an over-the-counter medication called NoDoz, which she said was “the pill form (of) a 5-hour Energy.”
The professor said her kids, years later, have described the widespread use of study drugs. They attended colleges across the country. She said her kids would talk about how students sometimes ended up in the hospital after taking too many Adderall pills.
“People are taking whatever they can get their hands on in order to stay awake and finish their work, without even understanding the full effects of the drug,” she said.
Bergen-Cico said the abuse of prescription medications by students without prescriptions can also lead to medical complications. Students are taking these drugs without an understanding of how much their body can withstand, she added.
In Rivera’s case, the profuse sweating was a sign her body was rejecting the Adderall. Overdoses can sometimes include cardiac arrest and seizures.
Bergen-Cico said some people think medication can be used to solve every health problem. Decreasing attention spans because of new technology have led students to be “fundamentally unable to sustain concentration and focus,” she added.
Like many drugs, stimulant medication such as Adderall or Ritalin are normally taken by “repeat offenders” — students who are abusing the drugs regularly, Bergen-Cico said. These students buy the drugs off a student who is prescribed or “doctor shop,” looking around for doctors who are more likely to prescribe the medication, and reciting symptoms they read online to get the prescription, she said.
But Bergen-Cico said there has been a recent push to include more in-depth cognitive testing before prescribing someone amphetamines, because the drugs are still easy to get a hold of without a doctor.
“It doesn’t even matter if you aren’t prescribed,” Rivera said. “It’s so easy to get.”
Spencer Stein, an accounting sophomore at SU, was prescribed 20 milligrams of Ritalin almost a year ago after struggling to focus on work. Stein said he was diagnosed with ADHD.
Stein said he underwent a “repetitive and lengthy” testing process and was initially prescribed 30 milligrams of Vyvanse. After experiencing negative side effects, such as excessive sweating, he switched to Ritalin, which he takes almost every day.
“Everything is much better,” he said in regards to his academic performance. “I feel like I can get my work done without (Ritalin), but I feel like they help me when I’m experiencing symptoms of my ADHD.”
Stein said a “significant” number of his friends take study drugs without prescriptions. Many people ask him to sell his prescribed pills, he said. But, Stein said he has not felt like any of his friends were “abusing” prescription drugs.
“Most of the time, they are taking a pill once every couple of weeks before a big test,” he said. “It’s not like they are taking them every night to go out.”
Though abused primarily as a way to focus during studying or work, prescription drugs are also used by college students when going out.
Rikki Wedgle, a senior public relations student, said she views Adderall as a “low-key” alternative to other drugs, such as cocaine, when going out. She said a lot of her friends will take pills before going out to maintain energy and “last longer.”
“It doesn’t really compare with other drugs, because it’s just so common,” she said.
Both Wedgle and Rivera agree most students do not “need” to abuse prescription medication to be productive, and that abuse is usually a result of procrastinating with an assignment.
Bergen-Cico agreed. She said students should learn mindful meditation to increase concentration and time management skills. She also recommended students get sleep and practice good nutrition.
While final exams can put a large amount of pressure on students, Bergen-Cico said that doesn’t give them an excuse to abuse drugs.
“As a society, we don’t tolerate pain or stress very well and we expect medication is going to fix it for us,” she said. “It’s not.”
Published on December 5, 2017 at 10:39 pm