Students trade health for academic success with stimulants

As finals week approaches, students open up about the use of study drugs.

Julie Sisler

With three exams and numerous papers all due within one week, Olivia turned to someone she knew who had an Adderall prescription and began using the drug. Several months later, she still uses Adderall when she has a heavy workload and doesn’t feel energized enough to get through it all.

“It helped me stay really focused and on task,” Olivia said. “I was getting a lot more done than I usually do.”

Nearly one third of college students have at least once taken a non-prescribed stimulant prescription drug, according to the Center on Young Adult Health and Development.

To some, this may be a startlingly large statistic, while others view the number as something of common knowledge.

“I think it definitely happens a lot at WKU,” Olivia, an underclassman, said. “It’s sort of socially acceptable.”

Most students tend to think twice before using illegal drugs like cocaine or meth. However, recent trends show students show no hesitation when using non-prescribed stimulants such as Adderall, Ritalin or Vyvanse.

“You look at the most addictive drugs like meth and coke, and I know it’s somewhere in the middle of that and alcohol or weed,” said junior Ryan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity due to a past criminal record.

Prescribed stimulants are similar to cocaine both in their chemical makeup and how they cause the body to function, according to the Genetic Science Learning Center.

Ryan has been illegally using study drugs for about two years and also finds they help him stay more on task and said he has gotten better grades with the help of these stimulants. He doesn’t plan on stopping his use anytime soon, saying that using the drugs are just too valuable to him.

“It’s worth it because time is money,” Ryan said. “Being in college, you need that time.”

Ryan said while on stimulants, he can turn five hours of work into just two.

Students are so desperate for the possible boost they see with stimulants that some, such as upperclassman Elise, have resorted to taking the pill in whatever way they can.

“I can’t swallow pills,” Elise said. “So I usually snort it or sprinkle it in applesauce.”
Elise said she doesn’t really think about getting caught but is more worried about the physical effects. She cited days of appetite loss and feeling lethargic and moody as negative side effects she experiences but is most worried about the short and long-term impacts of snorting pills.

Despite this, Elise says she always gets her work done while on stimulants, which is a larger concern for her.

Though Ryan noted multiple times the drugs are illegal for a reason, he still found the benefits outweigh the costs despite all he has at stake.

Ryan has already been in trouble with the law twice for what he said are mostly alcohol-related issues. He acknowledged illegal use of study drugs could land him in more trouble.

A 2015 survey done by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids found that 56% of college students believe study drugs are easy to obtain.

Sara, an underclassman, who said she began illegally taking study drugs her second week at college, gets them from a friend and said she finds the drugs easy to get ahold of.

Though Ryan doesn’t have a designated dealer, he knows if he can’t find it at first, all he has to do is wait, and eventually a dealer will come around.

“If someone doesn’t have it, I can get it from someone else within a few hours,” Ryan said.

Ben is an underclassman who identified himself as a dealer. His name has been changed to protect his identity. Ben said he began selling the pills to his close friends, eventually expanding the circle to sell to more people.

Ben was prescribed Adderall in elementary school for ADHD and has relied on it since. He said the drugs help him accomplish everything, and he doesn’t intend to stop using them at any point because of their benefits.

While most of the students echoed Ben’s sentiment that they don’t want to stop using the pills to aid their studying in the foreseeable future, some students have found the side effects outweigh the benefits.

Kirsten, an underclassmen, was prescribed Adderall in middle school, and she stopped using the drugs on her own because of the side effects, which she said were difficult to deal with.

“They do help you study, but the side effects were the worst part,” Kirsten said. “They caused me to fidget a lot, causing me to bite my nails and nail beds, pick at the dead ends of my hair … and my personality would completely change. I would go from happy, talkative Kirsten to zombie girl, talking to no one.”

Kirsten said it does bother her something she was prescribed is so easily abused by those around her, but she said she tries to warn others of the side effects and risks of abusing the pills.

“I understand people get work done, and good for them, but it’s just not the right pill to abuse,” Kirsten said. “I try to tell people to use them as little as possible … I don’t want people to take these pills and hurt themselves by not taking care of themselves while on the pill.”

Ryan, whose name has been changed, said the side effects are noticeably negative, and though he feels “messed up” for the rest of the day, it’s worth it because it helps him get so much done.

“I hated it, but I’ve had some bad effects,” Ryan said. “You don’t eat, so then at the end of the day you feel like shit. If you don’t know how to contain it, it messes with your head. It can make you really confused, especially after staying up for long.”

The risks of using an unprescribed drug, particularly a stimulant, include more than the risk of getting addicted, Karl Laves, associate director of the Counseling and Testing Center, said.

“[When] the Adderall or other stimulant is used, the student’s grades do not improve, but their legal risk goes sky-high,” Laves said. “And there are always side effects to any medication. Some stimulant medication if misused can cause temporary psychosis.”

Many students acknowledged the risk of using such drugs and experiencing the side effects, Kirsten said. Olivia said relying heavily on the drugs is something she’s concerned about, but ultimately, it doesn’t deter her from using them when she feels it’s needed. Though Sara reported using the pills whenever she needs them, she said she experiences side effects and a crash each time she uses the drug.

“They really make me feel like crap the next day,” Sara said. “I don’t think I could get addicted if I wanted to because of how bad they make me feel.”

Kirsten said the pill isn’t used to specifically help someone learn or retain information but rather to get through the assignments piling up.

“I wouldn’t say you memorize or learn, I’d say the pill makes a person really focused and determined to get stuff done,” Kirsten said. “No, you won’t learn as much, but the three assignments you have due tomorrow at noon and the lab you forgot to do will all get done. The pill just makes you focus. That’s what it’s for.”

For Sara, the heightened focus barely outweighs the side effects.

“It’s not something I like to do,” Sara said.

Laves said despite the risks and negative side effects, students continue to use study drugs because they want an easy way to accomplish what they need to do.

“The main reason we see the abuse of stimulants for ‘study purposes’ is that we have a lot more students on campus today who are not ready to do the work or don’t want to do the work,” Laves said. “Misuse of any medication is a serious issue, but I would not describe the misuse of Adderall as prevalent. There are many students who get through college without abusing a medication.”

Laves said he believes the use of study drugs reflects a cultural movement.

“I think it says we are a nation and a culture that is always looking for the easy way out,” Laves said. “Don’t want to exercise and eat less — take a diet pill. Don’t want to make yourself study — take a stimulant.”

Ryan said he believes taking stimulants illegally has become socially acceptable.

“It’s totally socially acceptable,” Ryan said. “It’s just like saying you smoked a cigarette or something. It’s like taking vitamins — you do it every day, and nobody judges you for it. It’s like my daily vitamin. Nobody questions why.”

To Ryan, the way this illegal activity has become so widespread and socially accepted creates a paradox.

“It’s almost like it’s worse when you’re prescribed it than when you take it to help with school,” Ryan said. “When you’re prescribed it, people think that means something is wrong with you. But when you’re taking it just to help study or get something done, you’re just using your resources.”

Students agreed the rising use of stimulants reflects changes in our culture, though many believe it’s a different sort of shift.

Ryan believes many students blame the mounting pressures in such a competitive society for the push toward using enhancements like study drugs. With increasing competition for scholarships, internships and jobs, students turn to alternative ways to boost themselves even at the costs that come with using prescription drugs.

Kirsten noted the large amount of assignments college students must get done and said the study drugs help students get through assignment after assignment. However, she also said she sees another reason that students fall into study-drug use.

“Either we are having so much work put on us that we cannot get it all done in time or we procrastinate way too much and panic last minute,” Kirsten said.

She said she believes it goes both ways, with shared blame between the expectations of teachers, parents and peers mixed with bad habits on the part of students. This leads to using medications as a coping mechanism.

“It’s kind of sad that we need the help,” Sara said.

Features reporter Julie Sisler can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Julie on social media at @julie_sisler.