ADHD drugs fuel college experience

BY ABIGAIL MEIER | MAY 09, 2014 5:00 AM

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Some students say coffee and Red Bull are no longer the only essentials for a late-night cramming session in the hours before a final exam.

Instead, many are relying on a 20-milligram, bright orange tablet.

A recent study shows college students who don’t have prescriptions for ADHD medications are indulging in this addictive habit to create razor-sharp concentration.

According to a poll by the Pediatric Academic Society, nearly one in five students at an unspecified Ivy League university reported using ADHD drugs without prescriptions to improve their grades.

And even though the study was based on one Ivy League university, the lead researcher, Andrew Adesman, said in a USA Today article that he is confident these results are virtually the same at every other school.  

Adderall, an amphetamine used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is becoming a popular avenue for college students to improve academic success.  

However, Samuel Kuperman, a University of Iowa professor of  psychiatry, warned that without a monitored prescription, serious side effects might occur if an ADHD medication is taken in high doses.

Kuperman said side effects of the medications could include loss of appetite, lack of sleep, weight loss, and an increase of depression or anxiety.

Megan Foley Nicpon, a UI associate professor in counseling psychology, said research shows the stimulant medications improve focus whether one is diagnosed with ADHD or not — the exact reason college students across the country are purchasing the pills from their counterparts as final exams near.

A few UI students, who chose to remain anonymous because of the subject’s nature, said it is common to misuse prescriptions as an way to increase concentration.

“I was amazed at how well I was able to focus and not care about what was going on around me,” said one UI junior.  “I seemed to be able to grasp the concepts better when I was focused and stimulated.”

He has experienced some of the side effects, such as lack of sleep and loss of appetite.  He said during one situation, he decided to take Vyvanse — another amphetamine used for ADHD patients — and said he experienced weird side effects, such as grinding his teeth. He described as “unpleasant.”

He said he does not consider these stimulants a form of cheating but a way to use “whatever resources you have available to you.” He recognizes it may prevent students from grasping necessary experiences.

“Although I am a frequent Adderall user, I do not believe it’s cheating the system,” he said.  “ [But] I believe in some cases, it can be cheating oneself from knowledge and skills he or she may need in the real world.”

Another UI junior who has been diagnosed with ADHD said in order for her to maintain a normal focus, medication is required.  However, said she believes people who are not prescribed should avoid using the drugs. 

“I think people take it all the time, and college students do everything in their power to get prescribed it, and then they distribute it,” she said.  “People who try to sell it or hand it out to other students are the ones who do not need to be on it.”  

She said she has been pressured by many of her friends to give them pills, but she said she will generally not give them out because she needs them.  

A UI sophomore and human physiology major said as a public university, students may feel pressured by the competitive environment and can create some unintended pressure to take stimulants.

“I think it’s cheating to use substances illegally to increase my performance in school,” she said.  “When I perform well in school, I feel good knowing that, despite what my fellow students did, I worked fair and square. I wish more students would do the same.”

Students say they use these drugs for an academic edge, which has spurred an ethical debate throughout the nation.

Some school honor codes, such as Duke University’s, forbid performance-enhancing drugs. UI spokesman Tom Moore said the UI Undergraduate Honor Code lies along those lines. 

“The Undergraduate Honor Codes do not address the use of performance-enhancing drugs directly but do prohibit ‘taking an unfair advantage,’ and this activity might fall under that language,” Moore said.  

The UI Honor Code says students should not have “unfair academic advantage.” The UI drug policy states the unauthorized use of prescription drugs — whether it be consuming, possessing, distributing, or selling — is prohibited and would result in “disciplinary action.”

But Foley Nicpon said the pressure put on students to excel academically explains why students take the stimulants.

“I think there is a lot of pressure on students to succeed,” Foley Nicpon said. “So it tells me that maybe we should look at other ways we can help students feel successful and not turn to these methods to be successful in school.”

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