Adderall abuse in college prompts warnings
UNIVERSITY PARK -- With final exams right around the corner, some college students seem to have super powers, cranking out a 12-page paper in a few hours or having no problem studying straight through the night. How do they do it?
In some cases, they are taking a prescription drug that isn’t theirs.
Adderall is prescribed for people with attention deficit disorder, but it is often abused on college campuses. Students who have never been to a doctor for attention disorders take the drug to help get ahead in school, buying or receiving the pills from friends, classmates or, in some cases, even family members.
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported in a 2009 survey that nearly seven percent of college students take Adderall without a prescription.
One Penn State student, Lou, said she uses Adderall to help her study before exams and to help her get through long nights with lots of homework. She said she began taking the drug when she was in high school and her brother had a prescription. Her mother was accepting of the fact that her daughter took the medicine, even though it wasn’t hers, she said.
Lou is not the student’s real name. She asked that her real name not be used so that she could speak frankly about her use of Adderall.
“When I had to study or write something, I would just take one. My mom was cool with it. She would take it to get the house clean before my grandmother came into town,” Lou said. “My freshman and sophomore years of college, my mom would just send it in the mail.”
Adderall is in the same family of drugs as methamphetamine, and according to the substance abuse administration it also is one of the legally approved drugs with the highest potential for addiction and abuse.
Gary Tennis, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of the Drug and Alcohol Programs, said in an interview that “the biggest problem with college students is that they’re going to get addicted. It’s not just their college career, it’s their whole lives. That’s what they’re giving up -- a happy, fulfilled, successful life.”
A person without an attention disorder who takes Adderall can suffer serious side effects, Tennis said. Among them are increased heart rate and blood pressure, feeling extremely jittery, insomnia, a suppressed appetite, psychosis and, for pregnant women, birth defects.
Lou said she believes she has an attention disorder because she frequently has trouble focusing and gets distracted easily. But she has not been to a doctor to get her own prescription. She said it’s easier to just buy it cheaply from her friends, even though it is a felony to sell prescription drugs. Lou said she can buy one 10-milligram pill for about $2.
“I’ve thought about it recently,” Lou said about going to a doctor, “but it’s such a long process to reach the point of being able to have the prescription that it’s not worth it.”
Victoria Stout, a Penn State psychiatrist for 18 years, confirmed that the process of getting an Adderall prescription is long. While there isn’t one test that will determine if someone has an attention disorder, there are guidelines a doctor should follow before giving out a script for the drug.
Stout said a doctor should look into a person’s family history, symptoms of attention disorder and childhood history, and should rule out any other underlying conditions such as depression or anxiety. A full questionnaire takes a long time.
When Lou takes Adderall, she said, she gets unusual cravings, such as wanting to smoke. She knows to buy a pack of cigarettes when she buys her pills because the cravings always come. Lou said she also enjoys smoking marijuana while on Adderall.
“I like getting high when I take it [Adderall]. It just mellows and slows down my thoughts. It takes me back to a normalcy,” Lou said.
According to the substance abuse administration survey, full-time college students who abused Adderall were three times more likely -- 79.9 percent versus 27.2 percent -- to have used marijuana in the past year compared with students who did not abuse Adderall.
The survey also showed that 89.5 percent of college students who abused Adderall also reported binge drinking in the month prior. More than half were heavy alcohol users.
Lou said she will occasionally take an Adderall before she goes out to party with her friends to help stay awake. But she doesn’t do it often because Adderall decreases alcohol tolerance, causing a person to get drunk faster, she said.
When Adderall is used for the right reasons, it can change lives.
Penn State junior Ryan Maloney has a family history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was having trouble focusing and with his memory. Maloney was diagnosed with ADHD his freshman year of college and has thrived since taking Adderall.
“In school, I always had a hard time focusing on one subject. I would never finish one project before moving on to the next, and in school that hurt me a lot,” Maloney said. “I was always smart. I just had a hard time taking more than one course. That’s when I started realizing something was going on.”
“Adderall has been an absolute lifesaver. I went from a student who couldn’t hold a 3.0 to making dean’s list,” he said.
Even though he has a prescription for the drug that everybody seems to want, Maloney said he refuses to give it out to his friends. A pre-med major, Maloney knows that people shouldn’t be taking drugs not prescribed for them.
“When people aren’t prescribed take it, it’s like driving a car in first gear. You go really fast, but you’re damaging the car. You’re getting ahead now, but you’re damaging yourself later on,” Maloney said. “People know not to ask me because I won’t give it away.”
Tennis noted that under Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substance Act a person who sells drugs illegally faces up to five years maximum in state prison.
“You’re going to be prosecuted and get a criminal record, all because you wanted to make a few bucks. It’s not a wise decision,” Tennis said.
Lou said she believes it is wise to take an Adderall now and then as long as she’s smart about it. She said she knows the rules about taking the medicine and the dosage information.
“Right when you take it you have to try and focus on the work you’re doing. If you wait a while for it to kick in, you fixate on something else immediately,” Lou said. While on Twitter, “I went on a tweet rampage. I tweeted 100 times in less than an hour and my Twitter got turned off, so I was forced to refocus.”
Tennis, however, firmly believes that taking the medicine when not prescribed is harmful. “You’re playing with your life,” he said, “and it’s not a good gamble to take.”
(Leah Polakoff is a Penn State journalism student. This story was written for the Centre Daily Times.)