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What Parents Need to Know About Stimulant Use on College Campuses

And how to talk to college students about it.

Students Don’t See Misuse as a Big Deal

While many students will acknowledge that excessive drinking is bad or that many illegal drugs are harmful, many students do not see taking Adderall, Ritalin, or Vyvanse without a prescription as a big deal. “It’s a non-stigma drug. Students aren’t embarrassed to use it,” DeSantis says. There is often a view among students that stimulants are safe because they can be prescribed for ADHD.

Kansas City-based pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert says one of the biggest challenges of Adderall misuse is the fact that taking an Adderall pill works when students need to stay up for long periods to study. “It does help pull those all-nighters. The effect of the drug positively reinforces doing it again, then needing it more and needing it more,” Burgert says. “I think it’s a pervasive problem, almost to the point where it’s normative behavior. It’s just not thought of as a big deal.” And unlike alcohol or marijuana, it’s harder to see the physical signs that students are using, which also can lead to the perception that it is not harmful. 

“It’s really difficult for police to stop Adderall abuse and possession,” says UW-Madison Campus Police Capt. Brent Plisch. “We can’t see effects like we can with alcohol and some other drugs until it’s a more severe problem.”

 

Brian L. Watkins, Director of Parent and Family Affairs at the University of Maryland, says a lot of the focus of campus police and other student services focus on alcohol and marijuana, so Adderall can sometimes seem like less of an issue. “Alcohol really is the big one in college. Students use a lot of alcohol and create damage in their lives and in the lives of others,” Watkins says. “And you can see it; vomiting everywhere, property destruction, detox. People don’t do that when they take Adderall, they often are at the library. It can be bad for your brain, and lots of things happen, but you’re not necessarily going to see it.”

 

Stimulants Are Easy to Get

In addition to the de-stigmatized view of stimulant drugs, it is really easy to find them on campus. According to the 2015 College Prescription Drug Study from Ohio State University, 71% of undergraduate students state that it is easy or very easy to obtain prescription stimulant medications. Many students can easily find stimulant drugs through other students who have a prescription. The study also found that 18.6% of undergraduate students report using stimulants without a prescription, and the majority of students who use prescription drugs for non-medical reasons report they typically obtain these prescription drugs from friends (82.6%). In 2009, as an experiment, two University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students walked into a campus library to see how quickly they could get Adderall. They found some to buy in just under a minute.

Many studies have found that students who non-medically use prescription stimulants obtain drugs from a friend who has a prescription. And beyond finding it from friends, experts say students who do not have ADHD can easily get a prescription themselves. “There are some students, who I understand, are smart enough to look up ADHD on internet, and then present these symptoms to doctors under the guise of having undiagnosed ADHD,” says Dr. Judith Owens, the Director of Sleep Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Non-medical Stimulant Use Doesn’t Lead to Better Grades

Stimulants are called “study drugs” for a reason, as the effects of these medications are increased focus and alertness. The most common reason students report using stimulants is to study or improve grades, according to the 2015 College Prescription Drug Study. Students also report “positive impacts on academics” as the primary effect of using these drugs for non-medical reasons. Especially when pressures at the end of the semester hit, students may resort to these drugs that appear to help. “There’s sort of a sense among college students that they need these medications to enhance their study habits, and if they don’t take them, they are at a disadvantage,” Dr. Owens says. “It’s at the most intense level around finals time, when students are pulling all-nighters, getting less sleep than they usually do, and using these drugs to keep them awake.”

But experts say the academic benefit for those without a prescription is actually a myth. “All the cross-sectional studies of students who are non-medical users and those who don’t use at all, has found that students who were users had much worse grades, not better grades,” says Dr. Amelia Arria, a public health researcher and Director of the Center on Young Adult Health Development at the University of Maryland. Dr. Kenneth M. Hale, a pharmacist and the co-director of the Generation Rx Initiative at Ohio State University, says it makes sense that studies show that non-medical users’ grades are lower. “[Stimulants] are not cognitive enhancers, they’re cognitive enablers. For students who didn’t go to class, didn’t do their work in the semester, they use during finals because they are now in crunch time,” Dr. Hale says. “There is evidence that there’s not a positive correlation with using [stimulants] and GPA. Those students who admitted misusing drugs like Adderall have lower grades than the students that did not [use Adderall non-medically]. There is a myth around this drug, that it’s a study aid.”

Dr. Owens also points out that some of the effects of Adderall, like staying awake to pull all-nighters instead of sleeping, run counter to retaining information. “The more stressed you are, the more you need sleep. There is this notion that staying up to study and not getting sleep helps you in terms of your performance, and that’s simply not true. For example, in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your brain consolidates memory, which helps you learn new information. If you have a period of REM sleep after learning a new task, you are much more likely being able to perform that,” Dr. Owens says. “Deep sleep, or slow waves, delta sleep, helps the body recharge, rejuvenate, and has benefits in terms of cognitive functioning, which are all important during times of intense learning.”

There Are Health Risks

“There’s always danger in taking medication that you’re not prescribed,” Dr. Burgert says.  “Young adults usually don’t understand how the medicine works, don’t understand their own health history, and they don’t know what they’re buying.” Dr. Burgert says nonmedical usage risks include increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate that could lead to stroke, not knowing what or how much you’re taking, addictive potential, and unknown effects due to family history. “If you’re a kid that truly doesn’t need these [stimulants], the effect of the Adderall can be more significant,” Dr. Burgert says. Other side effects of stimulant use include appetite suppression and insomnia, both leading to unhealthy habits.

Dr. Owens says using stimulants to offset lack of sleep is very unhealthy. “There is no replacement for sleep. There are lots of things that go on physiologically and from a nervous system standpoint during sleep that simply has no substitute,” Dr. Owens says. “The problem comes when students are taking these particularly extended release, longer-acting stimulant medication in afternoon or evening, in order to enhance their studying ability, which is questionable, and I think more importantly, trying to combat insufficient sleep, and daytime sleepiness.” Dr. Owens also points out that these drugs tend to produce a false sense that you’re not impaired, when you very much are.

It May Be Sign That Something Bigger Is Going On

Experts overwhelmingly agree that non-medical use of stimulants is usually related to something more than just the upcoming test. “I think what it can show us is that they are trying to put a Band-Aid on a bigger problem. It’s sometimes a great clue to us that something else is going on,” Dr. Burgert says.

Dr. Arria says that her research has found that those who are non-medically using stimulants are also using other drugs or binge drinking. “It’s very uncommon to just use a non-prescription drug and not use anything else,” Dr. Arria says. “Students were using them in situations where grades were declining because of other issues, like skipping class, drinking, or marijuana use.”

Dr. Hale points out that relying on Adderall or other stimulants to get through stressful situations is a sign that the student is not learning how to manage and cope with their stress in a responsible or healthy way. “Students will say, ‘I’m just using this to get through college. I have these exams. It’s just getting me through this time.’” Hale says.  “Isn’t college partly about developing healthy and sustainable habits that will make you a successful professional throughout your life? If you’re relying on Adderall to get through stressful situation, it’s hard to rationally say ‘I’m just doing this now, but I’m not going to continue it.’ Life doesn’t get any less stressful after college.”

As a parent, you know your child best, and using these drugs may be a sign that some other conversations are necessary. “It’s a red flag for other problems,” Dr. Arria says. “That’s the most important message for parents.” 

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It Is An Important Conversation to Have

While your college student is an adult, you are still their parent and your opinion still matters. Having conversations about this topic is important, both before your student leaves for college and throughout their time there. “I’m a parent and I would say [you should] talk to your student about these things before they come to college,” Dr. Hale says. “They’re going to have an opportunity to get their hands on drugs like Adderall or Ritalin, I almost guarantee it.”

As with anything, it starts with open and honest communication. Here are some ways to talk about it with your college student.