From the Daily: Let’s talk about Adderall

Monday, April 16, 2018 - 6:35pm

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Jack Silberman/Daily

The University of Michigan has an Adderall problem. Some would even call it an epidemic. Despite the University’s increased campaign to recognize mental health on campus, it has failed to address how campus culture fosters the use of Adderall throughout the school. As students become more entrenched in the popular “work hard, play hard” mentality that grips much of the student body, they turn to Adderall to achieve the academic and social success that this campus covets. A recent survey by The Daily found that 24 percent of University students use Adderall, and a 2008 study of 1,800 students found that as much as 81 percent of college students think that Adderall usage is not dangerous at all or only slightly dangerous, despite the fact that the consequences of the illicit use of the drug sit right next to those of cocaine, meth and morphine. However, despite the prevalence of the drug, there is a dearth of University resources to educate or help students that are grappling with its repercussions.

To remedy this gap in resources, the University must increase funding for Counseling and Psychological Services and advertise services provided by Addiction Treatment Services through Michigan Medicine. Over 90 percent of students who use Adderall use it for the purpose of concentrating while studying. These students do not realize the potential negative effects of the drug: notably, its high risk of dependency and potentially lethal consequences if used with other drugs and alcohol. With such a large percentage of students using Adderall without a prescription, it is important that the University provides students with addiction help.

Increasing resources on campus is another step the University needs to take to educate its students. Through CAPS, students can take advantage of a variety of treatment services, including two 45-minute confidential sessions of Assessment of Substance Abuse Patterns, individual and group counseling and referral services. These services could potentially help many students, but we have been unable to find clear guides from typical campus health resources outlining where these treatments can be obtained.

The presence of Adderall at the University is almost expected. Whether prescribed or non-prescribed, Adderall is a normalized part of campus culture; people try it, use it and depend on it. Though freshmen entrance programs like Haven or AlcoholEdu exist to raise awareness on the dangers of alcohol consumption and addiction, there is no campus-wide campaign that addresses the overwhelming prevalence of Adderall at the University. Consequently, most students don’t know much about the drug, and view it through a destigmatized, distorted lens. Because it is considered customary and is easy to acquire, most students don’t realize the medical, legal and moral implications of taking or selling the drug.

Adderall is classified as a Schedule II drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which means that it maintains a “high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.” It ranks higher than drugs like Xanax, which is Schedule IV, and is at an equal level with cocaine, another Schedule II drug. In addition to its addiction level, Adderall can spur painful side effects, from insomnia to paranoia. In an interview with the Daily, one student reported that “if I took it at any acute dose, it would just kind of cause chest discomfort and keep me from sleeping, and I couldn’t get anything done because the chest pain would make me panic.” Aside from short-term side effects, Adderall can also lead to long-term issues and even death. An article in the New York Times described a college student’s fall into depression, anxiety and eventual suicide due to his extreme addiction to Adderall. Despite all this, most students on our campus don’t view the drug as one that can kill because they aren’t aware of its high addictivity and the health concerns surrounding it, especially those students who use it sporadically and recreationally. 

Along with medical issues, Adderall dealing and use can lead to harsh legal consequences. The length and weight of penalties vary, but according to Michigan law, distribution of Adderall illegally is considered a felony and can lead to serious jail time. Despite this, Adderall dealing doesn’t have the same image as other drug trafficking. On campus, it’s as easy as texting someone in your hall for a pill or two. There are no back-alley deals, and oftentimes, money isn’t even involved. Because it is destigmatized and bred from an intense, competitive school culture, giving someone Adderall may appear to be helpful, not harmful. To some, the need to succeed outweighs the legal risks. Another student interviewed by The Daily reflected on her Adderall use by saying “I never really thought about it as being illegal to be honest … I feel like a lot of people who don’t have ADD (Attention-deficit disorder) are prescribed Adderall and I don’t think it’s like taking a Prozac or something that is so mentally altering … I don’t think of it as, ‘Oh, this is like a drug.’” Many students at the University echo this mentality subliminally, and by forgetting the legal implications of selling Adderall, we only add to its normalization on campus.

The perception of Adderall tends to lack the severity that we ascribe to other performance-enhancing drugs. Adderall has proven to improve students’ performance in rote memory forms of learning tasks, especially over several days or longer, acting as a performance enhancer for exams and tests that require intensive memorization. This can be especially impactful in classes in which performance relies on rote learning. When the difference in letter grade is significantly changed by the number of concentrated hours one’s mind can dedicate to memorizing in relation to others in their class, Adderall acts as a medically induced upper hand. While this may not be a compelling point to those currently using Adderall to improve their test performance, it should garner the attention of students who are forced to compete with those who use Adderall. The culture of nonchalance on the usage of study drugs can be altered as more people understand and recognize the negative ways their peers’ usage of Adderall affects them.

The destigmatizing of Adderall use at the University has blindsided many of these moral implications. In fact, the possible benefits conferred on students who choose to use Adderall are equal to the leg-up athletes gain when using performance-enhancing drugs. The significant athletic strides made possible with the use of PEDs has led to their outright ban in America by all four major American sports leagues, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the U.S. Olympic team.

Whether they improve muscle regeneration, increase strength or replicate natural hormones, PEDs have been targeted for elimination by sports leagues for some time now, as their use is antithetical to the idea of a level playing field. Competition, whether in sports or academics, should remain driven by natural ability and effort alone. Adderall’s role in the competition for academic success should not be trivialized but should be paralleled to the role of doping and steroids in the scandals surrounding once-hero athletes such as cyclist Lance Armstrong and baseball player Roger Clemens.  

The widespread and academically motivated use of Adderall on campus can make it easy to forget what exactly it is: a drug. Much like other drugs aimed at enhancing abilities, whether mental or physical, Adderall presents its users with a moral choice. Adderall’s aid of certain academic abilities is one of its innate qualities, and students at the University should recognize as much. For those who view this issue as inconsequential, this much should be remembered: All students, Adderall users or not, play on the same academic field.  Thus, we all feel the tilt brought about by Adderall, whether it pushes us up or down.

Though Adderall is commonly used in academic settings, it is also prevalent in the college party scene as a complement to alcohol. The focus of the University’s efforts to curtail dangerous behavior has been mostly targeted toward alcohol. However, the recent increase of mixing the “study drug” with alcohol should provoke concern because of the possibility of dangerous and unpredictable effects.

First of all, the University should take care to educate students on the chemical differences between Adderall and alcohol. Adderall, on the one hand, is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that increases the availability of excitatory neurotransmitters in areas of the brain that deal with focus, energy and alertness. On the other hand, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that inhibits the function of excitatory neurotransmitters. Alcohol’s status as a depressant reduces the effect of medical stimulants such as Adderall, which leads to the perception that the effects of both drugs are not as pronounced as they would be if taken individually.

The physiological effects of mixing alcohol and Adderall lead people to believe Adderall simply dulls the effects of alcohol. The reality, however, is that even though the effect of the stimulant is altered, the actual content of the drug has not changed at all. This sensation of numbness to the effects of both stimuli can give people the impression that they can party longer, making it easier for them to overdose.

The mixing of Adderall and alcohol then has two discernible effects: those in the short term and in the long term. The short-term effects stem from the unpredictable nature of their combination. One minute someone could be within their limit of alcohol intake, and the next they could be suffering from seizures or heart failure as a result of the capricious cocktail of medication plus alcohol. In the long term, a person’s quality of life can suffer from mixed use. A recent study found that simultaneous use of non-medical prescription stimulants and alcohol by undergraduates was associated with low grade point averages, use of other substances and increased alcohol-related consequences.

The group at the highest risk for Adderall abuse is college students, and therefore the University has an obligation to educate its student population on the consequences. The consumption of Adderall is not only widespread, but students have also become desensitized to its possible severity. To counteract this trend, a possible addition to the AlcoholEdu program of a freshman seminar on the use of unprescribed medication in academic and recreational settings could be a positive step forward for student safety and security.

Make no mistake, the nonprescription use of Adderall, Ritalin and similar central nervous system stimulants is a significant issue on our campus. This habit is unhealthy and academically dishonest, and we are calling for the re-sensitization of this issue. There needs to be a sustained, robust conversation about stimulant use on campus and an investment in a public health education campaign on the effects of these drugs.