The use (and abuse) of stimulants among college students

By Rae Harris, Forum editor

It’s midterms week and in a quiet corner of a crowded library, there is a student feeling weighed down by the pressure of college life. With a big exam scheduled early the next morning, followed by a shift at their part-time job and a paper due in less than 36 hours, they swallow a prescription stimulant that was bought off a friend in order to meet their many deadlines. But they certainly aren’t the only student in that library depending on prescription stimulants to keep their head above water.

While alcohol makes up the majority of substance abuse issues on college campuses, prescription drug misuse has also become a prominent problem. Prescription stimulants are taken by college students for both academic and recreational purposes. Some students take them to study longer and focus more easily, while others take them because they’re looking to make their nights out last till morning.

Today’s college students are misusing prescription stimulants at alarming rates, with one in five college students reporting misusing a stimulant at least once.

The Pressure Is On

College students feeling pressured to be the best can lead to prescription stimulant usage. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), more than 40 percent of colleges students have felt more than an average amount of stress. They face unprecedented levels of competition with their peers.

There is a notion that college students must excel in academics, extracurriculars, part-time jobs and sports, all while having time to stay fit and healthy. College students feel pressure to never show that you are struggling, to never show that you might need help. With only 24 hours in a day to complete every task, a prescription stimulant can seemingly provide the extra edge needed to get ahead because they enable users to study for unnaturally prolonged periods. In a survey by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, 44 percent of college students report abusing stimulants in order to study and improve academic performance.

Prescription stimulants are also being used to stay up longer. “All-nighters” are common in college, especially when cramming for an exam or writing a paper. Prescription stimulants make staying up until the morning much easier, and 31 percent of college students who misuse prescription stimulation report using them to stay awake. However, lack of sleep can have detrimental effects on college student’s brains including lower grade point averages, compromised learning, impaired mood, increased risk of academic failure and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents.

Today’s college culture encourages students to have elaborate social lives, while continuing to manage academic stress. Some students turn to prescription stimulants to party longer, and feel more awake at social gatherings. Others may use prescription stimulants to switch up their partying habits and get high off of them by crushing the pills up and snorting the powder. Using these drugs like this is  dangerous because when they’re combined with alcohol, prescription stimulants can increase the risk of alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related injuries.

How Students Get Hooked

The most popular prescription stimulants to “misuse” among young adults are Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse, which are prescribed for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Stimulants work by increasing dopamine levels, which are associated with pleasure. When they are misused, stimulants rapidly increase dopamine levels which creates incentive to keep taking the drug to achieve the same dopamine levels.  This disrupts the normal communication in the brain and can increase the risk of addiction.

One reason for the widespread usage of prescription stimulants on college campuses are the sheer availability of these drugs. According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, 56 percent of young adults aged 18 to 25 say that it is easy to obtain prescription stimulants without being prescribed them.

College students often receive these stimulants from someone they know with a prescription—57 percent of college students who misuse prescription stimulants report getting the drugs from a friend. Prescription stimulants are also normalized in college culture. Young adults who misuse prescription stimulants tend to believe that the drugs have less risks than substances like pain medication, cigarettes or binge-drinking.

The Digital Age And Short Attention Spans

The digital age is another factor that has led many college students to struggle in their academic performances, and to search for the fast fix of prescription stimulants to conquer the problem. For example, in class, students typically have their laptops open to take notes.

However, if one would look closely, one could catch them checking emails, working on other assignments or browsing the web, rather than paying attention to the material being taught. With so many electronic distractions, today’s college students are conditioned to have shorter attention spans. When trying to resist these distractions, popping a pill is an easy way for a college student to ensure peak academic performance.

The Repercussions  

The misuse of stimulant medications by college students may be a red flag for other problems. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry about stimulant misuse in college students stated that students who misuse these medications are more likely to have undiagnosed ADHD, conduct disorder and other substance use disorders. Stimulant misuse can also have detrimental health effects, including heart and blood vessel problems, psychiatric issues and addiction, which categorizes them as Schedule II controlled substances. These drugs have a high potential for abuse, and can leave one facing fines, or even jail time for possessing them without a prescription or selling them.

Instead of telling college students not to misuse prescription stimulants, some colleges are seeking to tackle the problems that prompt student’s prescription pills misuse. For example, Miami University has formulated a different approach to prevent misuse among college students. They university urges students to participate in workshops about time management and medication safety as a  requirement before students can be prescribed medication for ADHD.

While colleges monitoring prescriptions is a start, students should be able to cope with the pressures and stress of college without the only solution appearing to in the form of  a pill. By providing students with ample community support, accommodating and understanding professors and adequate mental health counseling, the percentage of college students who turn to prescription stimulants may decrease, and in turn, improve the overall mental health of college students.

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