Several recent studies reveal that American college students, graduate students, even college professors and research scientists, are taking prescription stimulants to stay awake and alert for extended periods of time and boost focus and concentration while studying or working.
Called ‘study drugs’, ‘brain dope’, ‘academic steroids’, ‘smart drugs’ and several other catchy names by students, amphetamine, methylphenidates, and other wake-promoting drugs such as Ritalin®, Adderall®, Concerta®, Modafinil® and Provigil® are in wide and common use on campuses across the country.
A number of studies and surveys have tried to pin down how many students are taking these drugs, but the results show a wide range.
One university study found that 30 percent of their students had illegally used a stimulant like Adderall or Ritalin and that the percentage increased at higher school levels: the percentage of juniors and seniors who had used the drugs rose to 50 percent, juniors and seniors in fraternities and sororities hit 80 percent.
A study in another college also came in at approximately 30 percent, while yet another came in slightly higher with one in three students having abused Adderall. Who knows how high that percentage would be if the study had included other, similar drugs?
At yet another university, it was found that of 1300 students who responded to a survey, 25 percent said they had used these stimulants. It also appears that the vast majority of students are using these drugs without prescriptions. Of the 25 percent of students who had used stimulant drugs in this study, for example, less than 9 percent had had them prescribed by a doctor.
Use of these drugs has skyrocketed over the years. Methylphenidate (such as Ritalin) was first suggested as a way to control children’s behavior in 1963. By 1970, 15 different pharmaceutical companies manufactured over 30 kinds of prescription stimulant-type products. Gradually, these drugs started being misused as study drugs, especially in college settings, by young people between 18 and 25.
By 2004, the number of college students using study drugs was 5 percent – about 850,000 students. Ritalin was the subject of that study so, not having included other, similar drugs, this is bound to be a very low estimate.
And today, even judging on the lower estimates of 30 percent, and with 20 million students in colleges and universities, we’re looking at as many as 7.5 million college kids using stimulant drugs.
Worse, many of them are unaware of the dangers of these drugs. A 2016 national survey stated that 38.5 percent of college-age individuals (19 to 22 years old) reported that regularly taking these drugs for nonmedical purposes did not pose a “great risk” of harm and this age group was the least likely (compared to 12thgraders or young adults older than 22) to disapprove of their misuse.
Students and professors are now openly discussing their frequent use of these Central Nervous System (CNS) stimulants, admitting that on most college campuses the drugs are widely available without prescription. Students say the drugs are easily obtained either from friends with prescriptions, from dealers who are obtaining and selling these drugs illegally, or from dozens of shady internet pharmacies with lax prescription requirements.
Study drugs are illegal without a prescription, and only approved for specific conditions. The most common approved uses, depending on the drug, include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, sleep apnea, and a few others. All other uses, such as for studying, are ‘off label’ – meaning they’re prescribed for conditions for which their efficacy and safety have not been verified through the usual studies, nor have they been approved by the FDA for that purpose.
Also, study drugs are known to create serious health problems for people with pre-existing medical conditions or who are taking drugs that, when combined with study drugs, may cause an overdose or other serious and sometimes deadly side effects. So when students are given or purchase the drugs from a friend or drug dealer, a doctor doesn’t even have the opportunity to screen the students for these pre-existing medical conditions which, when these drugs are taken, could be exacerbated to the point of serious injury and even death.
The reasons similar drugs have been taken off the market or banned for use under certain conditions aren’t frivolous.
MOST-COMMON STUDY DRUGS
There are many drugs all over the world that are used as study drugs, but the number of drugs being used for this purpose is increasing. At this time, the most common are:
WHAT AMPHETAMINES DO
Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, Modafinil and all other amphetamine-type drugs are central nervous system stimulants and include a fairly long list of brand name and generic drugs related to the infamous methamphetamines, the dangerously addictive and destructive street drugs that have devastated the lives of people across America who are suffering serious addiction and health problems.
Amphetamines are psychoactive drugs that, to one degree or another, depending on the drug, increase the activity levels of the brain chemicals called norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. The effects are generally felt as stimulating, making users experience more energy, wakefulness and concentration.
Because these drugs also cause loss of appetite, they were, in recent decades, commonly available and popularly used to reduce appetite and control weight. When it was discovered that they are extremely dangerous and even killing people, legislation was enacted to restrict their use.
These are also the type of drugs long ago made illegal for enhancing athletic performance, in both humans and animals (such as race horses and greyhounds). Quite apart from providing a competitive edge, amphetamines can put a body into ‘overdrive’ leading to sudden heart failure, collapse and death.
Nevertheless, there are more of these drugs being manufactured and prescribed than ever before and their use has been cultivated into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Long term safety has not been determined, and there have been no randomized controlled trials assessing the harms or benefits of using these drugs beyond two years. The American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics both have stated that doctors should carefully assess for heart conditions before prescribing stimulants, and the FDA has added black box warnings to some amphetamines — Adderall for example carries warnings about potential for abuse, drug dependence, and sudden death.
The drug labels also warn about psychotic effects such as paranoia, disordered thoughts, and hallucinations, especially in those who already are emotionally unstable or who exceed the prescribed dose.
Yet in spite of all the dangers and the warnings, millions of college students, with the tacit approval of professors, parents and peers, are popping these pills in the hope of higher academic achievement.
Ironically, some studies show that they don’t even improve grades. Plus, the longer a person takes the drugs for their positive effect, the greater the chances of the effects being reversed so the students find themselves even less able to perform than they were prior to taking the drug.
SIDE EFFECTS OF STUDY DRUGS
Many users of study drugs report side effects such as:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Feelings of suspicion or paranoia
- Tourette’s syndrome
- High blood pressure
- Rapid heart rate
- Sudden heart attack
DEPENDENCE, ADDICTION AND WITHDRAWAL
Dependence and addiction are very much a potential outcome of abuse of study drugs.
When someone tries to stop taking a drug and experiences uncomfortable symptoms and side effects or needs to continue increasing dosages to get the same effect, that person is physically dependent on the drug. In some cases, these people might also be addicted, which is a psychological condition, as well as physical.
Students are regularly reporting dependence and addiction — they want to get off the drugs, but they can’t get off them on their own. Although the abuse in most cases begins innocently — just wanting a little boost while studying for exams — some people are particularly sensitive to their euphoric effects, which can lead to repeated use and abuse and a serious dependence and addiction.
The side effects of withdrawal from study drugs can be serious. They can include:
- Excessive sleeping
- Increased appetite
- Suicidal thoughts
MEDICALLY ASSISTED WITHDRAWAL
While many study drug users will only take them for brief periods – during exams – and stick to a low dose, even they should consult with a doctor before taking them, and before quitting them.
But there are many who will take more of the drugs and for longer periods of time. These users, especially, may need the help of a medical detox facility to get off the drugs comfortably and safely.
The common practice of ‘weaning’ people off amphetamines by slowly decreasing their dosage over a period of many weeks is often unacceptable, especially to students and younger people impatient to get on with their lives. Medical drug detox, called medically assisted withdrawal, offers many advantages.
Medical detox facilities use proper nutrition, hydration and other means to help withdrawal from study drugs to be safer, more comfortable, and much faster than other means.