Everyone has a secret—a little detail they hide from the world. For some, that secret is a juvenile crush. For others, it’s a haunting past. For Katie, it’s a behavioral disorder.
As a young teen, Katie struggled in school and was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) during her junior year of high school. To combat her lack of attention and comprehension, her psychiatrist prescribed her instant-release Adderall, a common drug for attention deficit disorders. While the diagnosis did not embarrass her, she soon discovered that some fellow students were desperate to get their hands on her supply of meds.
THE RISE OF THE STUDY DRUG
Students without an ADHD diagnosis commonly seek out other students with an Adderall (or Ritalin) prescription in hopes of gaining access to their medication. Taking Adderall, or other similar drugs, makes students hyperalert and enables them to perform better in school. Adderall is an amphetamine, an “upper,” and it goes by a number of nicknames including “Addy” and “speed.” Between 2005 and 2011, the non-medical use of Adderall increased by nearly 70 percent, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Because full-time college students are twice as likely to abuse Adderall as their peers who are not full-time students, the medication has made its way into American culture as “the study drug.”
As the rate of amphetamine abuse becomes more popular, Katie worries that students aren’t aware of the risks. “When I first started taking Adderall, it made me aggressive,” Katie said. She would lash out at people around her for disrupting her concentration.
Many students who take Adderall without proper consultation find themselves experiencing moodiness, unhealthy weight loss and patterns of insomnia. “It also increases anxiety for those who have struggled with it before. It decreases your appetite but simultaneously sucks energy from you, so it is important to eat and drink plenty when you are on the drug. It stimulates your mind and can prevent you from sleeping,” Katie said.
Now a sophomore in college, Katie keeps her diagnosis in the shadows. “I only tell my close friends about my ADHD. If other people find out that I have been prescribed medication, they often ask me to share.”
Though she shared her prescription in the past in an attempt to “help out a friend,” Katie came to realize that she doesn’t want to support dishonest behavior. “If someone is able to achieve good grades and they still take Adderall, I get very mad because it is giving them a boost that they don’t need,” Katie said. “People with ADHD have to work hard for their grades, and when someone who doesn’t possess the same struggles uses the medication, it is a slap in the face to the people who actually need it.”
AN ETHICAL DILEMMA
Walla Walla University biology professor Jonathan Cowles incorporates the issue of Adderall abuse into one of his class’s curriculum. “I believe that ADHD medication abuse is a complex mix of health and ethical issues,” Cowles said. “The goal of the medication is to help students with unbalanced brain chemistry do as well as students with more balanced brain chemistry. In other words, it helps level the playing field.”
Each year, Cowles devotes a whole class period toward open discussion of the issue of Adderall abuse, allowing his students to weigh in on the pros and cons. He typically finds that the class comes to a consensus that this type of abuse is unethical and unnecessary. “Most other methods of gaining an unfair advantage are considered cheating, and one could argue that ADHD medication abuse is cheating as well,” Cowles said.
School is a measurement of knowledge and endurance, and skewing those measurements through illegal obtainment of stimulant medication opens the door for moral disputes.
A NECESSARY TOOL?
Estelle, a junior at Walla Walla University, admits to using her friend’s medication when she has a lot of schoolwork to do. “Homework that is tedious actually becomes enjoyable on Adderall. I get it done quickly and efficiently,” she said. “I’d say I use it at least once a week.”
Though she has cut back on her usage of the medication, Estelle remembers a stressful period of time when she felt like she couldn’t complete normal tasks without Adderall. She has since made the decision to back off on her intake and only use it when she feels it is necessary.
Adderall’s addictive effects have been described as being similar to those of cocaine according to AddictionCenter.com, a website for recovering addicts. Amphetamines and cocaine are not on the same level, but that doesn’t mean that Estelle’s dependence on Adderall was purely psychological. Her habitual use of the drug may have caused her to developed a chemical reliance.
Linda Ivy, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, suspects that taking stimulant medications may provide more of a motivational advantage rather than an actual cognitive advantage. “Students can become dependent both physically and psychologically on these medications. They may begin to believe that they cannot be successful without taking the medication,” Ivy said.
WITH GREAT POWER…
Katie worries that her long-term Adderall use will have negative repercussions on her health. “I only take it on weekdays. I don’t want to grow a dependency on it and I really don’t need it on the weekends,” Katie said.
While Katie appreciates the daily benefits that Adderall provides, she has experienced a number of side effects that she has overcome. “One can improve their side effects of ADHD by eating better, sleeping more, exercising regularly, and maturing both physically and mentally,” Katie said, “Once you get older, you start making goals for yourself and you have more of a drive to focus, making you less dependent and more responsible.”
Amphetamines serve an important purpose for many college students, but the unwarranted and non-medical consumption of these drugs puts not only health, but also ethics into question. School is challenging and work piles up, but that’s how discipline is formed. Someone experiencing symptoms of ADHD should consult a medical professional before taking Adderall.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.