Pills on a page of notes.

Study Drugs and College

Adderall among list of prescription drugs used by college students to cram for exams

By Jacob Sisneros

Dec. 5, 2016

Story Highlights:

SAN DIEGO – Adults age 18 to 25 have the highest rate of nonmedical use of prescription drugs out of any age group, including opioid pain relievers, anti-anxiety drugs and ADHD stimulants in 2014, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

Prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin are primarily used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, but have also become popular among college students as a way to stay up late and study for an exam or finish homework.

James Lange, director of the Health Promotions Department at San Diego State, said the nonmedical use of prescription stimulants is a phenomenon that he became aware of around 10 years ago.

“(Usage) did seem to be increasing at that time,” Lange said. “I don’t know that it’s increasing anymore, but it’s remained a substantial issue in terms of nonprescription use of medications.”

Adderall is a drug that increases the ability to pay attention, stay focused on a task and control behavioral problems.

Lange said that while the drug does improve alertness and help the user stay awake, it doesn’t live up to promises that it will improve studying and help the user learn faster.

“It doesn’t seem to improve learning, it doesn’t seem to improve performance on complex cognitive tasks like tests,” Lange said. “There’s actually a growing understanding that while it’s really helpful for someone with ADHD, especially within education that’s where ADHD really tends to make things difficult for folks is the educational setting and these medicines absolutely seem to help them. If you don’t have ADHD there isn’t any clear line to improvement.”

Despite this, an informal study of 77 anonymous respondents at San Diego State University found that 80 percent of respondents know someone who has taken Adderall or Ritalin to study for an exam or catch up on homework.

Junior aerospace engineering major Matt Dodge said he has been tempted to take Adderall before because his exams usually come in clusters.

“I have definitely thought about (taking Adderall),” Dodge said. “When I have two or three midterms in a week it’s overwhelming to study for all of them, but coffee has worked for me in the past.”

Based on an informal online survey of 77 students conducted by this reporter, half of survey respondents reported that coffee was their preferred method of staying awake while studying while 19 percent of respondents reported prescription stimulants as their favorite method.

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SDSU Health Promotion implements program targeting prescription drug abuse

Samantha Greeney-Hamlin, health educator at SDSU, developed and implemented the Prescription Stimulant Misuse and Abuse Prevention Program last year with the help of Lange. Greeney-Hamlin said national research has found that fraternities are at a high risk of prescription stimulant abuse and that is the audience she tailored the program toward.

Lange and Greeney-Hamlin said they are specifically targeting the harmful practice of using Adderall to recover from a night of drinking.

“The risk is that they are kind of allowing themselves to get out of control with alcohol or some other drug and hoping (Adderall) will help fix what that did,” Lange said.

Greeney-Hamlin said the 50-minute presentation that is part of her program focuses on knowledge acquisition and norms correcting.

“It’s definitely not considered a high-risk behavior by college students, they don’t see it that way, but we did see a shift in them seeing it as a little riskier than what they thought before coming into the presentation.”

In 2015, 50 percent of freshmen reported feeling stressed most of the time and 36 percent said they did not feel they were able to manage the stress of day-to-day college life, according to the JED Foundation, a nonprofit that works to protect the mental health of teenagers and college students.

Greeney-Hamlin said abuse of prescription drugs is covered briefly during freshmen and transfer orientations, but she is currently researching how to expand the program and tailor it to other portions of the student body because they might have different motivations for use than people involved in fraternities and sororities.

The Health Promotions Department at SDSU offers various workshops throughout the semester to counsel students including one aimed at reducing test anxiety.

Greeney-Hamlin said students can talk to a counselor in the Counseling and Psychological Services department if they are feeling overwhelmed by their course load or attend a Student Life and Leadership group session to learn study skills, time management and stress management.

Senior audiology major Kyle Skitco said he has had to work hard to improve his time management skills.

Skitco said he is organized and plans out his week to make sure he has enough time to study and do homework.

“I think Adderall is a last resort when people haven’t done enough work to prepare for a test,” Skitco said. “I’m not sure if I would consider it cheating, but it’s definitely a shortcut.”

Header image by Jacob Sisneros