Many students use ADHD drugs to make the grade


Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 10:14 p.m.
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The University of Florida is part of a growing trend of college students using attention deficit disorder medicine, such as the generic Adderall this student is holding, in order to stay awake longer to study.

Photo Illustration by Rob C. Witzel /The Gainesvil

Facts

A growing trend

  • As many as 20 percent of college students take Adderall, Ritalin or similar drugs traditionally used to treat ADHD without a prescription, according to a University of Wisconsin study cited in a Johns Hopkins University newsletter dated November 2002.
  • Only seven percent of college students have used prescription stimulants for non-medical purposes during their lives, according to a study of 119 colleges and universities throughout the nation that was published in the journal Addiction in January.
  • These stimulants help improve concentration by increasing the activity in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that filters out extraneous noise, said John D. Hall, a UF assistant professor and psychiatrist who specializes in addiction.
  • Common side effects of Adderall or Ritalin include jitteriness, dizziness, high blood pressure, dry mouth, exaggerated feelings of well being, insomnia, lack of appetite and twitches, Hall said.
  • As many as 20 percent of college students take Adderall, Ritalin or similar drugs traditionally used to treat ADHD without a prescription, according to a University of Wisconsin study cited in a Johns Hopkins University newsletter dated November 2002.
  • Only 7 percent of college students have used prescription stimulants for non-medical purposes during their lives, according to a study of 119 colleges and universities throughout the nation that was published in the journal Addiction in January.
  • These stimulants help improve concentration by increasing the activity in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that filters out extraneous noise, said John D. Hall, a UF assistant professor and psychiatrist who specializes in addiction.
  • Common side effects of Adderall or Ritalin include jitteriness, dizziness, high blood pressure, dry mouth, exaggerated feelings of well being, insomnia, lack of appetite and twitches, Hall said.

  • The week of a major exam, Damon studies 15 hours a day - nonstop.
    The University of Florida business student doesn't rely on sugar or caffeine to maintain his stamina. Nor does he break for food or sleep.
    He can go for days on a single pill - a 20-milligram tablet of Adderall.
    "It's like focus and concentration in a pill," Damon said. "When I first heard people talk about it, I didn't believe anything they said. I was like, 'There's nothing that's going to make me want to read my calculus book.' But it really does. You want to study. You have this undying drive."
    Damon, who asked that his last name not be published, is among thousands of UF students who use prescription stimulants illegally, said John D. Hall, a UF assistant professor and psychiatrist who specializes in addiction.
    Students take drugs commonly used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to improve their concentration and academic performance, he said.
    The trend is nationwide. As many as 20 percent of college students take Adderall, Ritalin or similar drugs without a prescription, according to a University of Wisconsin study cited in a November 2002 Johns Hopkins University newsletter. A study of 119 colleges and universities throughout the nation, published in the journal Addiction in January, suggests only 7 percent of college students have used prescription stimulants for non-medical purposes during their lives.
    Despite the popularity of the drugs on college campuses, Hall said students using them for non-medical purposes do risk addiction and other health complications.
    White male fraternity members as well as women in sororities were the most frequent users of non-medical prescription stimulants, according to the national study, which was led by a University of Michigan researcher and based on data from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study.
    Damon said many of his friends take advantage of Adderall's concentration-boosting quality.
    "If you just listen, if you turn your ear to it, you'd see people in the library practically popping the pills. It's rampant. Trust me."
    Students have realized these stimulants help them remain focused by increasing the activity in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that filters out extraneous noise, said Hall, who has discovered through research that the majority of students prefer Adderall to Ritalin because it's longer lasting and more effective.
    The frontal lobe acts like the brakes of a car, he said. With increased control of the brakes, the driver can more easily maneuver the car.
    Courtney, a UF psychology student with a 3.9 grade-point average who also asked that her full name not be used, said years of studying as a good student can't compare to the clarity supplied by Adderall.
    "I see why they give it to children with ADHD because it makes you have tunnel vision," Courtney said. "All I'm looking at is the book, and all I can concentrate on is the book. I just get so much done with it, and I feel like Superwoman afterward."
    To get the effect, Courtney said she takes 20 milligrams of Adderall every few hours. The most she has ever taken in one night was seven doses.
    But Damon said he splits a single 20-milligram pill, taking the halves over the course of several days. For him, ten milligrams take only 20 to 30 minutes to kick in.
    "It's unreal the amount of material you will absorb when you're on Adderall," he said. "I feel like reading one line of text on Adderall would be like reading a line of text sober three times. It just sticks."
    That's why he's willing to pay $5 to $10 per 20-milligram pill, Damon said.
    Students buy them from friends of friends, he said. They're pretty easy to get because everyone knows someone with a prescription.
    But Courtney said she usually pays $20 to $30 for a 20-milligram tablet. "Whoever has a prescription is gold."
    Around finals, the price goes up to $50 to $70 per pill, she added.
    "It's one of those things you do to get into a mind-set," she said. "You know certain people have to study a certain way. Well, I have to drink 'X' amount of coffee and take an Adderall. It's more of a way of getting in the zone for studying."
    Because of Adderall, Damon said he has been able to maintain his grades while playing UF-sanctioned sports, volunteering and working every semester.
    "I definitely think it's a miracle drug," Damon said. "I'm pretty confident I wouldn't be doing as well in school as I am now without it. When I started taking it, I started getting straight As immediately."
    But the high grades do come at a cost. "It makes you a machine," Damon said. "You can't eat. You can't sleep. When I first took it freshman year, I didn't sleep for probably two and a half or three days."
    Some side effects of Adderall or Ritalin include jitteriness, dizziness, high blood pressure, dry mouth, exaggerated feelings of well being, insomnia, lack of appetite and twitches, Hall said.
    Like cocaine, Adderall and Ritalin are listed as Schedule II controlled substances. According to federal law and the Florida statutes, drugs in this classification have a high potential for abuse, severely restricted medical use and the potential to cause severe psychological or physical dependence.
    Illegal distribution of a controlled substance is a felony, said Joe Kilmer, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Miami field division.
    Although the potential for addiction and other risks do exist, the truth is most individuals can use these drugs with few consequences, Hall said.
    "To me, the main danger of using these is the fact that people are looking for an easy way out," Hall said. "... People are not learning the appropriate coping skills to deal with life when they get older."
    Few cases of Adderall possession on campus have been brought to the attention of UF administrators, said Cyrus Williams, UF assistant dean and director of Student Judicial Affairs.
    But such cases do call for legal action and possibly result in suspension.
    However, UF does not consider the use of Adderall and other similar performance-enhancing drugs cheating, Williams said.
    And neither do the students who use them.
    Anyone who wants to take Adderall has the same opportunity to get it, Courtney said.
    "The way I look at it is I am learning the information, and I am doing this for the most part on my own," she said. "It's my brain power. It's my knowledge. I do have it in me."
    The illegal use of prescription drugs is becoming more and more common, Hall said.
    "I don't think most colleges are either aware of it or want to deal with the issue," he said. "But it's going to have to be looked at."

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