The school year may be winding down for university students, but with final exams still looming, and summer sessions right behind, it’s safe to say that more than a few people will be looking for a little, um, help when it comes to studying. If that “help” comes in the form of a drug like Ritalin or Adderall, you may want to think again.
Your college may be one of those that’s already cracked down on prescribing, sharing, and selling drugs that treat attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And if it’s not now, by fall 2013 it could be. The New York Times and other news outlets have recently reported on new rules set by schools in the wake of what seems to be increasing abuse of these drugs, which users say increase focus and attention even if they haven’t been diagnosed with either condition.
Colleges report that many students are sharing or buying the drugs and using them without a doctor’s orders. According to the Times, some campuses require students who get the drugs at school to sign a contract promising not to share the medicine with others, and to agree to drug testing.
Some of the abuse may stem from the fact that many students who relied on the drugs in high school could now have trouble getting a prescription once they’re at college. But most of the misuse of the drugs is likely among students without an ADD/ADHD diagnosis who’ve heard the drugs can help improve their focus, especially during exam time. That’s a slippery slope, according to research from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which found that illegal (unprescribed) use of prescription stimulants, which includes Adderall and Ritalin, can also lead to use of drugs like cocaine and heroin.
National figures on abuse of Adderall and Ritalin on campuses are hard to come by, but according to the College National Health Assessment, a survey conducted at Emory University in the fall of 2010 found that nearly six percent of Emory respondents said they’d used prescription stimulants without a prescription at least once during the previous year. A 2009 study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that full-time college students were twice as likely to have used Adderall for “non-medical” reasons as people the same age who weren’t enrolled in college, and illegal use of the drug was linked to other illegal drug use and to binge drinking.
The American College Health Association has no official policy on the matter, but Stacy Andes, Ed.D., a past chair and current member of the association’s Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Coalition and director of health promotion at Villanova University, said in an email to TakePart, that “much like alcohol, non-medical prescription drug use is perceived as relatively harmless by our high school and college students,” wrote Andes. “We are tackling an issue for which there is little stigma, increased access, and low perceived harmfulness by virtue of its affiliation with…healthcare providers.”
Victor Schwartz, M.D., medical director of the Jed Foundation, which promotes emotional health and works to prevent suicide among college and university students, says he expect to see ADD drug use decrease, both on campuses and in young adults who have finished college, because the focus on abuse of the drugs is reducing the number of prescriptions young adults get. He adds, though, that “for people really diagnosed with ADD, many of them continue to use [the drugs] and it continues to be helpful.”
Schwartz says that it’s especially important for young adults in college or starting a career who weren’t previously diagnosed with an attention problem to get a thorough checkup if they’re having trouble focusing, because it’s rare to see the condition first diagnosed when a person is in their late teens or 20s. “If it’s first diagnosed then,” says Schwartz, “you have to be alert to the possibility that the new problems are very likely something else, such as depression, anxiety, or fatigue.”
Have you considered or tried ADD/ADHD drugs to help you concentrate better? Do you have friends who have?
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Fran Kritz is a freelance writer specializing in health and health policy and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. Takepart.com