ADHD drug abuse on the rise in colleges, study shows

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Finals weeks can be a stressful time for many college students, and a new study shows that many of them are misusing prescription drugs to help them focus.

One final exam can make or break a grade-point average. Some students are taking desperate measures to ensure better grades by taking stimulant medications like Adderall, Vivance, Conserta, Ritalin and Dexadraine not prescribed to them.

“It’s a performance enhancer” said Allen O’Barr, a psychiatrist with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services.

“Stimulant medication releases a neurochemical called dopamine, which is important for us to be able to stay on task, but it’s also a chemical that is responsible in part of us being able to maintain our balance in this reality,” O’Barr added.

Adderall can give people an edge, like studying longer and concentrating better, which makes it so appealing to college students who don’t have ADHD.

“If you’re competing in an academic environment, to be able to perform and you have all these other people that you’re competing with and some of these people have access to a medication that allows them to focus more or allows them to be able to stay up for 36 hours without needing sleep in the short run? They may do better,” said O’Barr.

O’Barr said some UNC students are misusing prescription ADHD medication, but this is also happening at schools all across the country.

According to a study by The Coalition to Prevent ADHD Medication Misuse, 75 percent of students believe some of their peers have used ADHD prescription stimulants illegally. In fact, CPAMM said, “The University of Michigan Monitoring the Future reports significant increase in non-medical use of prescription stimulants in the past 15 years.”

“We know nationwide, there is a misuse,” said Theresa Maitland, a senior ADHD/Learning Disability specialist at UNC.

Maitland knows all too well how many students become desperate during finals week.

“For some people it can actually be very detrimental and bring out bigger emotional issues that they didn’t know they had,” she said.

According to CPAMM, about 67 percent of college students have some familiarity with ADHD prescription misuse and most, about 73 percent, find it to be harmful.

Sara Salinas is a sophomore at UNC and a reporter for The Daily Tarheel. She investigated Adderall use on campus and discovered there’s a black market for it. She profiled a student she calls Amy, and said her source “sells regularly to three people” on campus and that other students “approach her to buy Adderall” for any number of reasons.

“It’s being used illegally, but part of the reason it’s so difficult to track, so difficult to sanction as a violation of the honor code, is because you have to take all these steps to get from an illegal substance that is used legally across the board to something that’s used illicitly,” Salinas said.

For students using it legally like Barnett Frank, a doctoral student at UNC diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, they’re worried for their peers.

“I just think it’s dangerous. It’s an amphetamine. It’s a Class 1 drug. It can be dangerous too. I would not misuse it,” said Frank.

According to a public university study post on CPAMM’s website, 74 percent of college students who used a stimulant medication got their prescription from a friend.

Psychiatrists say there are consequences of misusing prescription drugs.

“You’re ultimately going to end up paying the piper at some point. Can you use it even if it’s not prescribed and do better on your exam or perform in a very highly intense time and not have any side effects? Yes. But you’re also laying down a pattern of behavior that may ultimately get you into trouble later in life,” said O’ Barr.

Trouble later in life, he said, because it creates a habit of taking shortcuts in school and in life.

We reached out to area schools like Duke University as well, but they did not want to comment. 

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