OPINION: Abuse of study drugs is a campus issue

Art by Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

With midterm season in full swing, students may be utilizing a quick and easy fix to academic procrastination prevalent on many campuses: attention deficit disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder medication.

In a 2015 Medical News Today article, University of South Carolina researcher Kari Benson discussed a study that found the desire for performance-improving stimulants on campus is an imminent concern: 17 percent of college students misuse ADHD medication by exceeding their prescription or taking it without a prescription at all. More concerning, though, is the fact that the facilitators are often students themselves.

Medication for attention-deficit disorders include Adderall, Concerta and Ritalin — all stimulants that contain amphetamines or methylphenidate. These drugs target the central nervous system and boost cognitive control, but heavy recreational use leads to a built tolerance demanding higher and more frequent doses at an increasing pace.

In many cases, immaturity has been likened to disease, and the damage done by this prevalent attitude is disturbing. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Health Economics revealed that age may be the key behind high ADHD diagnoses across America: Among the kindergarteners studied, 10 percent of those born in August (the youngest in the class) were diagnosed with ADHD, compared to only 4.5 percent of those born in September (the oldest). Those in the youngest group showed double the likelihood of being treated with psychostimulants than those in the eldest. Researchers estimate that this figure alone could have led to 900,000 misdiagnoses of ADHD.

According to 2011 research by the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, the past 20 years have seen the rate of diagnosis of ADHD skyrocket from 3 to 15 percent – and that is not because natural selection yielded a generation of inherently unfocused and apathetic human beings. The reality is that current methods of identifying and diagnosing ADHD fall grossly short of an objective standard. The legitimacy of mental disorders should never be brought into question, but overdiagnosis of attention-deficit disorders among young people without actual need for medication deserves scrutiny.

The result of decades of incorrect diagnoses is that an unparalleled proportion of college students has prescribed psychostimulants, and many among them are unafraid to reap the lucrative benefits of sharing. To put it bluntly, more than a sixth of students are popping Adderall and Ritalin like candy, on American college campuses disregarding the long-term consequences.

These Schedule II controlled substances stimulate the flow of dopamine in the brain’s reward center, offering those hours of undisrupted binge-studying students crave. But while they intensify certain kinds of attention and recall, they do not actually improve one’s ability to multitask and engage in complex learning, proving arguably futile outside the immediate context of crystallized learning. The comedown is emotionally rough and the side effects, even for those with real diagnoses, are unpleasant; headaches, insomnia and lack of appetite are a few examples.

A 2014 study conducted by the Pediatric Academic Societies showed that even recommended doses of amphetamines can have adverse effects on the developing brain. Animal exposure has proved long-term use contributes to reduced brain plasticity and weakened memory function. By recklessly consuming drugs, students are irreversibly hurting their natural abilities.

In many cases, they are also perpetuating a cycle of dependence already in play: Massachusetts General Hospital found that 20 percent of students who misuse prescription stimulants also abuse  other drugs and alcohol.

Attention deficit disorders are real, chronic conditions, but the line separating immaturity and disease must be drawn more clearly to prevent this epidemic from spiraling out of control. More importantly, our University should address this rampant trend, and consider why the academic atmosphere on campus has grown so tense and what it can do to help students cope.

The superficially academic nature of prescribed ADHD medication paints it in a different light than other drugs altogether. But this misinformed view has no place on college campuses, or anywhere at all: Adderall and Ritalin are in the same medical and legal bracket as addictive substances like cocaine and methamphetamine. They are far from a harmless, last-minute energy boost to propel students through midterm studying, and should not be treated as such.

If the brazen pill-popping culture on college campuses continues to grow exponentially, the demand will ultimately exceed the supply. And if the supply runs out, much of the damage will already have been done.