Focus or failure? Adderall abuse on campus

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Design and photos by Jaquan Leonard and Kaleb Dill

To protect privacy, the names of students have been changed.

A guy slouches in the doorway. His eyes roam the room and he staggers a bit. He is clearly drunk, but it is only 10 p.m. and he wants to stay awake. “Hey, does anyone have a Vyvanse? Or an Adderall? I need to stay alive.” Everyone shakes their head and he leaves the room disappointed.

A few nights later, a group of guys are sitting on a couch watching TV. One of their friends is still at the library writing a lab report. They laugh at how miserable he must be. The guy with glassy red eyes says “I mean, I could do it if I was on Vyvanse too.” His friends beside him nod in agreement, keeping their eyes on the basketball game.

Everyone knows college students use amphetamines; the dialogue of stimulant misuse on campuses nationwide has been heard before. Students feel pressure to succeed, and it comes from all directions — educational institutions, families, friends or themselves. When added with work and extracurriculars, the pressure of wanting to go out and spend time with friends can merit taking a pill to stay awake. Amphetamines affect chemicals in the brain and nerves that contribute to hyperactivity and impulse control, which can affect performance in class.

One pill, in the minds of many, can make all the difference. One pill can help you finish that assignment or ace that test. One pill can make you succeed.

But for some students with mental illness or a family history of substance abuse, amphetamines begin to look less like study tools or party enhancers and more like a way to cope with everyday stress.

Jenna Johnston, an Outreach Prevention specialist at Counseling and Substance Abuse Services on campus, believes that deeper, more emotional aspects of life have the strongest influence on a person’s potential for abusing substances. Students may abuse drugs like Adderall “because they’re suffering, and they want to stop suffering. A lot of times, people just don’t know what to. So they get creative in what they want to try,” she said.

Johnston explained that students use amphetamines for their side effects: being able to stay awake and drink longer or handle loss of appetite.

She added that many students using amphetamines complain of trouble sleeping, headaches, irritability and nausea. More problems await students who misuse the drugs habitually. Without proper medical justification for stimulant use, Johnston explained that an amphetamine-fueled party or studying spree can prove useless. Stimulants make users more active and alert, but “you can still procrastinate while you’re high. And there’s no research whatsoever that shows improvement in grades or long term memory,” she said.

The pressures that the education system create may facilitate drug abuse in some students, but these methods can be helpful in other settings. Sophomore John Smith detailed his struggle with attention-deficit disorder, the diagnosis process and his experiences with drug dependency.

Smith sat beside me at the table in a bright orange V-neck, looking off and fidgeting with his hair. As I talked with him, he glanced at me for a second or two, then flicked his gaze back to the wall. Smith was diagnosed with ADD in the ninth grade by a family doctor and has taken different types of medication to help him focus ever since — some of them stimulants and some of them non-stimulants. Before his diagnosis, he found it difficult to get through the day.

“At one point, I thought I was going crazy,” he said. Smith described feeling like people were constantly watching him, staring at him in the hallways or in class. His grades were terrible, and he feared he might not graduate from high school. He relayed these concerns to his doctor, who prescribed Vyvanse, a medicine used to treat ADHD. The pills worked for a while.

But amphetamines increase the amount of three neurotransmitters in the brain: dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. For someone suffering with anxiety, the higher level of chemicals can make worries more serious and stress uncontrollably hyped-up.

“At the end of the day, I got more and more paranoid when I was on Vyvanse, which is the reason why I take Adderall now, because Vyvanse is much stronger,” John explained. Although his initial experience with taking amphetamines was rough, switching the type and dose of his medication proved successful. “I don’t know what I would have done, honestly,” he said. “I love going to school every day now.”

Student Health Services views emotional and mental stability as foundational elements for student success and happiness. Bridget McLernon Sykes and John Inman, M.D., the Interim and Medical Directors of Student Health Services, take great measures to prevent potential abuse or misuse of amphetamines on campus.

“For here [Student Health], we require formalized psychoeducational testing. We wouldn’t just put someone on the medicine to see if it works,” Inman said. He explained that in addition to reviewing the tests and matching them with the diagnosis for ADHD, Student Health can prescribe medication only to students registered through the SNAP program on campus. “We have to limit it somewhere, but we want to be supportive of students who have declared disabilities,” Inman said.

Sykes attests that from the end of December to March, about 10 new patients have sought care specifically for ADHD and more than 80 are currently being followed for ADHD care. Some of these students may have felt intimidated or afraid to take stimulants as medication, but knew they needed help. Sykes attested that drugs like Adderall and Vyvanse can be extremely beneficial for students when taken correctly; in some cases, both doctors have seen the medications completely turn their patients’ lives around.

“I see people once they start therapy really almost change their life because they’ve done so well, for the first time sometimes. They’re able to major in something that they didn’t think they could do. I’ve seen people graduate, you know, you’re excited, and they’re excited,” Inman said.

Student Health follows strict guidelines to prevent abuse and misuse of amphetamines. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, drugs and other controlled substances are divided into five groups, called schedules. The substances are categorized based on whether they have a currently accepted medical use for treatment in the United States, their relative abuse potential, and likelihood of causing dependence when abused. Amphetamines are categorized as Schedule II substances, which include drugs with the highest potential of abuse.

Smith explained that he struggled to keep up in school because of his own Adderall misuse, which he said lasted his entire freshman year. “I would take it late at night because I thought I needed it to do work in general. It was pretty pathetic. And then I ended up missing class the next day because I’d stay up so late, then I’d end up staying up late again to catch up on material,” he explained.

At one point, he started selling his pills to make money; usually in a casual setting, such as after smoking marijuana at a friend’s house, and usually just to close acquaintances who wanted the pills to study. However, Smith quickly learned that forfeiting his medication in order for his friends to write papers or cram for exams was not worth going without it for days at a time.

To prevent widespread misuse of amphetamines, Johnston suggests that students keep their ADD medication safely stored and away from prying eyes. “I don’t want to encourage stigma,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with having that diagnosis and needing that medication. But peer pressure is a real thing. And it is abused on college campuses, so I can only imagine if I was a college student, I would keep that among my trusted friends. Because when it comes to distribution, that doesn’t mean selling on a massive scale — that means ‘Here, have one.’”

There are several options for students forming an amphetamine dependency, or concerned observers who feel they know someone who is, to receive help and counseling. Johnston explained the FAST Report — an online system where faculty and students anonymously send their concerns to the Dean of Students, who then contacts the student to meet and find out what is going on. Professors and fellow students can also learn how to recognize the signs of drug dependency or misuse. Symptoms include sudden changes in a student’s personality or general behavior, excessive absence to class, an exhausted or overly energetic demeanor, legal trouble with the school or police, declining grades and sudden changes in relationships.

Any substance which alters the brain’s chemistry can be addictive. Students who are informed and educated of amphetamines’ potentially harmful effects are more likely to remain careful, safe users of the medication. As Sykes explained, “The medicines are out there like any of those medicines in the Schedule II for a reason. They can provide tremendous benefits to people’s lives, but you know, in certain circumstances they can be trouble.”

Amphetamine, in its first controlled form, was created in 1887 by a Romanian chemist named Lazar Edeleanu. In the American 1920s, pharmaceutical companies that performed experimental trials of amphetamine noticed the drug dilated the lungs and cleared the airways of patients with asthma.

A decision on the part of pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline and French to sell Benzodrine Inhalers, which contained amphetamine, led to a clinical enthusiasm of the drug. The newfound fervor spiked production and popularized amphetamines as medicine, which were doled out to treat everything from narcolepsy to opiate addiction.

However, by the mid-1930s, what doctors and scientists had seen as a perfectly controlled medication turned sour. Amphetamine abuse was taking shape. Those looking for a cheap high took the amphetamine strips out of Benzodrine Inhalers and placed them into cups of coffee or chewed and swallowed them for a quick, productive rush.

Enter college students. The 1930s version of Adderall took over the academic world and fueled students’ late-night studying sprees across the country.

Soldiers in World War II took amphetamines for vigor; truck drivers and nurses took amphetamines to stay awake longer; college students took amphetamines to prepare for exams; athletes took amphetamines for more energy.

Demand for the drug swelled throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Artists of the Beat generation took amphetamines to fuel creativity. Benzedrine Sulfate, an amphetamine-based drug, became popular among housewives in the ‘50s, nicknamed “Mother’s little helper.” Women took it to lose weight.

Following the illegal spike in production of amphetamines in the ‘70s, governments began to crack down on abuse. The U.S. mandated the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, making un-prescribed amphetamines illegal. Even with the governmental crackdown, amphetamine use continued to crop up across the country. Doctors still prescribed the same amphetamines well into the ‘80s and speed, a similar drug, was prevalent in the gay and punk scenes of the ‘90s.

Adderall is still popular among college students. According to the website ATTN., approximately one third of college students are said to have used the drug at some point during their four years of college. The ADHD drug industry made more than $9 billion in 2012, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

Do you need help with a substance abuse issue?

Contact Counseling and Substance Abuse Services (CASAS) at (843) 953-5640. All services are completely confidential.

*This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Yard. 

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