According to the New York Times, in June 2007, freshman Johnny Edwards went to Harvard University’s Health Services clinic complaining about trouble concentrating and studying. A nurse practitioner diagnosed him as suffering from attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and prescribed Adderall, a stimulant. Six months later Edwards killed himself.
Edwards’s father is now suing Harvard for wrongful death, alleging that the diagnosis of ADHD and the Adderall prescription did not meet medical standards.
For two years, Richard Fee struggled with an addiction to Adderall that doctors prescribed him to treat attention ADHD. He had been in an out of psychiatric care, and kicked out of his house by his parents who feared his violent outbursts.
Fee had been introduced to Adderall in college as study aid, only obtaining a prescription for himself after he graduated to help him with medical school applications.
In late 2011, Fee hanged himself in his bedroom closet. His mother found the body.
These tragic cases highlight the dangers of prescription stimulants.
Like Fee and Edwards, many young people are first introduced to these drugs in college. And like Fee, many students’ first experience with the drug is not under a doctor’s order but under academic pressure. Unlike Fee and Edwards, many students obtain the drugs illegally.
Because of their widespread abuse and potentially dire consequences, schools need to develop policies that directly address the use of prescription stimulants on campus.
“I Feel Like a Genius on It”
Students who don’t have a legitimate medical need often take stimulants to get a leg up academically. Though untested on individuals without ADHD, students claim prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin help them concentrate, study longer, or simply stay up later to finish a project. They usually take the drugs during finals week or other times of “high academic stress.”
“Adderall has become to college what steroids are to baseball,” explains Roger Cohen in a NY Times column, “an illicit performance enhancer for a fiercely competitive environment.”
In one study, students described the drugs’ effects glowingly. “I get everything done, quickly. I am crazy on it that way,” said one student. Another insisted he was “so much more productive…It’s just a different level on Adderall.” For other students “stuff just registers better” or “I grasp everything so much easier…I feel like a genius on it.”
Given these drugs’ reputations as academic miracle workers, it’s unsurprising that college students are more likely than their non-college peers to have abused prescription stimulants. The estimates vary, but studies have found as many as 34% of college students use prescription stimulants for non-medical reasons.
The medications are easy to get. Friends and acquaintances are the most common suppliers. Nor does there seem to be much of a stigma attached to the drugs. Instead students often see them as safe alternatives to “illegal” drugs.
That they’re legal, however, does not mean that the drugs are safe, especially when used without a doctor’s supervision. The federal government classifies Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta (all used to treat ADHD) as schedule II drugs, the same classification as cocaine, methadone, and methamphetamines. According to federal guidelines, schedule II substances have “a high potential for abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.”
Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration warns that Ritalin, Adderall, and Concerta can cause heart problems, aggressive behavior, and even psychotic symptoms in children and teenagers.
To make matters worse, students often ingest them in ways that are not prescribed, such as snorting them or taking higher dosages. As one student explained to researchers, Adderall often comes in time release capsules, but “if you mash it up, you get it all at once, like a rush.”
Some students are less coy about prescription stimulants’ potential for recreational and not just academic abuse. One described Adderall to researchers as “cheap coke. You know you get the same high, but you can get it for like 5 bucks.”
Indeed, while most students cite academic reasons as their motive for abusing prescription stimulants, 22.5% reported they used the drugs to party — not study — longer. Sadly, the consequences of abusing these stimulants as party drugs are now appearing in emergency rooms.
According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, in 2005 the number of emergency room visits related to “nonmedical” use of central nervous system stimulants like Ritalin, Adderall, and caffeine pills was 5,605. In 2012, it was 22,949. Thirty percent of those visits in 2012 — over 6,800 — involved alcohol.
Studies show that college students who used non-medical prescription stimulants while drinking are more likely than other drinkers to experience alcohol-related consequences. Some researchers speculate that this is because the stimulants hide the depressive effects of intoxication, leading users to drink more.
Users of illicit prescription stimulants are also more likely than other drug users to report taking several drugs, often simultaneously, a dangerous and potentially fatal practice.
Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin have important, legitimate medical uses.
But these drugs also lend themselves to abuse by students looking for an academic edge or cheap high. And the potential for abuse will only grow as more students with prescriptions to Adderall or Ritalin (and hence more pills) arrive on campuses.
According to the CDC, between 1997 and 2006, rates of ADHD diagnosis increased by 3% every year. As of 2007, 9.5% of children 4 to 17 years old were diagnosed with ADHD. 66.3% of those children received medication for the disorder.
In fact, studies have shown that colleges students can effectively fake ADHD symptoms based on information available on the web, which might mean that motivated college students are dishonestly obtaining prescriptions.
Unfortunately, abusers of prescription stimulants end up hurting students with legitmate reasons to take the medications. On College Confidential, an online forum for college students, one poster complained that abusers of medications damaged the reputations of students with ADHD:
I have some serious gripes about these bad practices. First of all, we don’t take meds to get ahead. We take meds to level the goddamn playing field by controlling our symptoms and making our minds like one of yours, and these people are just messing it up for us. Secondly, all of this is giving us a bad reputation and personally I’m sick of hearing how kids with AD(H)D are all frauds and cheaters. Abusing medication is repulsive to me.
Cracking down on abuse might help remove the label of “fraud” or “cheater” that also sticks to legitimate users of the medications.
Several schools have already put policies in place to prevent abuse. Duke University, for instance, includes “the unauthorized use of prescription medication to enhance academic performance” as a form of cheating in its policy on academic dishonesty. Other colleges and universities have begun to require a more rigorous diagnosis before any medication is prescribed.
Regardless of the approach, colleges and universities need to be actively addressing this issue in a sensitive and effective manner.
 DeSantis, A.D., Webb, E.M., Noar, S.M. (2008). “Illict Use of Prescription ADHD Medications on College Campus: A Multimethodological Approach.” Journal of American College Health, 57, 315-323, esp. 319.
 McCabe, S.E., Teter, C.J. (2007). “Drug use related problems among nonmedical users of prescription stimulants: A web-based survey of college students from a Midwestern university.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 91, 69-76.
 DeSantis 2009.
Bavarian, N., Flay, B.R., Ketcham, P.L., Smit, E. (2013). “Illicit use of prescription stimulants in a college student sample: A theory-guided analysis.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 132, 665-673. DesSantis 2009, 322. Bavarian 2013.
 DeSantis 2009, 320.
 Bavarian 2013.
 Egan, K.L., Reboussin, B.A., Blocker, J.N., Wolfson, M., Sutfin, E.L. (2013). “Simultaneous use of non-medical ADHD prescription stimulants and alcohol among undergraduate students. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 131, 71-77.
 McCabe 2007.
 Sollman, M., Ranseen, J.D., Berry, D.T.R. (2010). “Detection of Feigned ADHD in College Students.” Psychological Assessment, 22, 325-335.