In an increasingly competitive academic environment, one particularly risky strategy has college students hooked. “Study drugs,” such as Adderall and Ritalin, are stimulants frequently abused by students to increase focus and productivity for that extra academic edge. These attention-boosters are typically prescribed to help those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Keath Low, a psychotherapist at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of California argues that by increasing brain dopamine levels, the drugs may induce a calming effect on those with ADHD assumed to have inadequate dopamine levels. But abusing the drugs is not only illegal, it’s dangerous.
DeAnsin Parker, a neuropsychologist practicing in New York City, reports that while study drugs may increase concentration, using them can quickly lull your brain into a dependency by “[over-exciting] the nervous system.” She also notes that the medicine’s blend of amphetamines accelerates chemical messengers in your brain, effectively conditioning your brain to only be alert when chemically put in overdrive, which creates the conditions for a harmful “cycle of addiction.” Not only is this a net reduction in your ability to study well, but the subsequent “crash” once the drug wears off leaves the user “exhausted and [depressed],” said Natalie Rich, a drug intervention specialist at the University of North Carolina. Furthermore, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse the “crash” often results in paranoia, massive mood swings, depression and – in extreme cases – suicide. Experts warn that dangers of the cycle of addiction are real. In November 2011, 24-year-old Richard Fee, an aspiring medical student, even committed suicide after his most recent prescription of Adderall ran out. It’s “all the things that [one sees] if someone were getting off a cocaine addiction,” said Parker.
Even without the addiction cycle, misusing the drugs can lead to serious health effects. According to the American Academy of Neurology, misusing study drugs induces spikes in high blood pressure, irregular and accelerated heartbeat, paranoia, hallucinations, seizures and increased risk of heart failure.
The National Institute of Health reports that users may also suffer from anxiety, depression and psychosis. According to research examined by the University of Southern California, misusing study drugs also inhibits monoamine transporters that are crucial to the re-uptake of dopamine back into your presynaptic neuron. Without this re-uptake, dopamine isn’t recycled effectively and gets “washed away,” lowering your aggregate catecholamine levels in your neural system. Fallon Schultz, a clinical expert and social worker, explains that Adderall “tricks the brain that it doesn’t need to make dopamine, and dopamine is the only chemical in the brain that once it is damaged, you never get it back.”
While many believe that abuse of study drugs isn’t that prevalent on college campuses, a 2011 Department of Health and Human Services study reports that abuse of Adderall and Ritalin in college-age students is even higher than all of cocaine and hallucinogens combined. Another national study released in 2013 found a 33 percent increase since 2008 in study drug abuse. Professor of Communication Alan DeSantis’ research found that, at the University of Kentucky, half of all upperclassmen have used the drugs, with that number climbing to 80 percent when looking only at upperclassmen in fraternities and sororities. While many of us would like to think that Emory is immune to such practice, anecdotal evidence from Emory students, including an editorial piece published last semester by Lane Billings, Managing Editor of the Wheel, strongly suggests otherwise.
To address these issues, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has suggested increasing university regulation of study drug use by setting limits on prescribed amounts per visit and requiring a medical history of ADD/ADHD. California State University, Fresno has implemented similar regulations requiring a full ADD/ADHD evaluation, which could take a few months to complete, and requiring students to agree to monthly consultations with health professionals. Fresno’s student health director Catherine Feliz said that the campus has “definitely seen a difference” and “only the serious [students]” with legitimate ADD/ADHD concerns are being prescribed the drugs.
While it is in no way a perfect solution, it’s worth the effort. While some might argue that students who wish to get the drugs will inevitably find a way to do so, it is still important for the school to restrict the ease of access and prevalence of these drugs; to do nothing would be an affront to Emory’s mission to be “ethically engaged.” School-enforced regulations may bolster existing deterrents to the consumption of study drugs and would provide Emory with an adequate regulatory framework to help control rampant abuse.
When academic honesty and students’ health are at stake, it’s worth even the imperfect try. The alternative simply lets dangerous abuse continue to proliferate.
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Illustration by Mariana Hernandez