Spring break may be just around the corner, but this week, midterms take center stage. It’s times like these that the fear of falling behind pushes some to extreme measures — sometimes in the form of Adderall, a psychoactive drug commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit disorders. It’s more often than not used as an academic steroid.
If Adderall use at USC looks anything like it does at other universities, chances are, it’s everywhere. Over the years, non-medical use of Adderall has risen 67 percent and emergency room visits are up 156 percent, according to a study published last month in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Specifically, 60 percent of these misusers fall into the 18 to 25 age group as Adderall abuse skyrockets on college campuses across the nation.
The root of the problem, however, isn’t just the pill itself. It’s the blasé attitude surrounding its use. It’s the fact that students often equate this Schedule II stimulant — classified in the same class as narcotics like oxycodone, cocaine and opium — to coffee or a can of Red Bull.
“Many of these college students think stimulants like Adderall are harmless study aids,” the study’s co-author Ramin Mojtabai said. “But there can be serious health risks and they need to be more aware.”
A 2010 study surveyed 175 students who described Adderall as no more dangerous than drinking a lot of coffee. Many justified it because it’s only used in moderation during exam season. Some also argued that they were taking Adderall for the right reasons — not to get high, but to get higher grades.
But if Adderall were as innocuous as they believe, the increase in related ER visits from 862 visits in 2006 to 1,489 in 2011 doesn’t fit. Clearly, those who use it without prescription aren’t sufficiently aware of the dangers of overdosing or the host of side effects. An addictive amphetamine, Adderall can cause increased anxiety, agitation, insomnia and blood pressure, while suppressing appetite. Its components — dextroamphetamine saccharate, dextroamphetamine sulfate, aspartate and sulfate — hardly sound like the ingredients in your morning cup of Starbucks. But perhaps for students who need it for a paper due in a few hours, this isn’t a priority.
The pharmaceutical industry isn’t much help either. According to The New York Times, the FDA has cited every major ADHD drug for false and misleading advertising since 2000. In 2012, the Harvard Crimson approved an ad for ADDTabz, a non-prescription alternative to Adderall, before pulling it. The fact that they ran it shows that pills that promise cognitive edge without prescription or true medical need are gaining a semblance of normalcy.
Psychologically, it can also become a crutch. Writer Kate Miller shared her struggles in The New York Times. She took Adderall for the first time as a senior at UCLA, but then began using it routinely during her first professional job.
“Without the drug I felt stupid, unable to focus or follow a thought through to completion. I was shy and unwilling to initiate conversation. The witty, articulate woman I once was seemed to no longer exist,” Miller wrote. Studying without it could seem almost sluggish once one has experienced its speed.
In May 2010, the Engemann Student Health Center at USC cracked down and tightened up regulations and examinations on students requesting Adderall prescriptions. But as students interviewed in the Daily Trojan hinted at, even if prescriptions are strictly regulated, students will still be able to access the drug through classmates, friends or family who have prescriptions. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases found that 62 percent of college students prescribed Adderall hand over their pills to others.
The only way to rid campuses of Adderall is through cultural — not institutional — change. It all boils down to a broader issue related not only to a blasé attitude about Adderall, but to our tendency to compromise health in exchange for academic success. In the pressure cooker that is college, students are so caught up in the throes of resume building and GPAs that health, in the moment, seems like a small thing to give up. Two hours of sleep a night, a meal skipped here and there. The question is, will we be there to enjoy those ends if the means to get there have eaten away at us? We have that youthful sense of invincibility now, but that doesn’t last forever.
College is a time of transition into adulthood. Exploration is a big part of that — but so is developing healthy habits of stress management for the real world. In less than four years, we’re heading out into a place where issues don’t just amount to tomorrow’s 10-page paper, and where miracle pills don’t guarantee overnight success.
Valerie Yu is a senior majoring in English literature and biological sciences. She is also the blogs editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Heart of the Matter,” runs every other Thursday.