About 40 minutes after the first time Tracy took Adderall, she sat in her high school classroom and started feeling twitchy and antsy. She began sweating slightly and was very eager to do things.
“In the beginning, it scared the hell out of me,” Tracy recalls. “At one point I was like, ‘I want to calm the hell down. I really want this to stop.’”
Tracy began taking Adderall as a sophomore in high school because she was having a hard time with her schoolwork. Although she hadn’t been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, she saw the effects that Adderall had on her friends who had been prescribed the drug and she took up their offer to try some.
She soon began to enjoy the effects that Adderall had on her life. Tracy said her GPA went up significantly and she was able to get a lot more done. Instead of spending her free time sitting around or watching TV, she would read a book or exercise.
Most college students know someone who takes Adderall or another stimulant drug whether it’s prescribed or not.
Adderall, along with similar medications like Concerta, Ritalin and Dexedrine, is a psycho-stimulant drug prescribed to treat ADHD. Adderall is an amphetamine comprised of several different amphetamine salts that increase focus and concentration.
Historically, amphetamines have served other purposes beyond treating ADHD. For example, amphetamines were used in the trenches of World War II to increase alertness and fight fatigue. More recently, however, Adderall and medications like it are being used illicitly as a study aid, a party drug or to lose weight.
In 2005, the University of Michigan’s Substance Abuse Research Center reported 7 percent of college students have used prescription stimulants for non-medical purposes. Although some schools surveyed reported no prescription stimulant abuse, some reported as much as 25 percent of students had used stimulants without a prescription in the past year.
Warren Phillips is a practicing psychologist and teaches abnormal psychology and psychological assessment. He explains prescription of Adderall and other stimulants has increased in recent years. He says this might be due to a greater number of people attending college.
“There is a greater push for people to get secondary education. If you had ADHD and didn’t go to the university, you could probably get by,” Phillips says.
With more college students being prescribed the drug it’s relatively easy for one to get their hands on Adderall on most campuses.
With an increasing pressure to attend college and do well, many students who haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD are turning to Adderall as a study drug. Some see this as cheating or think students who use Adderall have an unfair advantage.
Sara, a sophomore in animal ecology and anthropology, got a prescription for Adderall last semester when she was having trouble keeping up with her Biology 212 class.
“There’s no way I would have gotten through last semester without it,” Sara says. “I felt like everyone around me was doing it. The standards were raised so high that I had to take [Adderall].”
Rachel, a sophomore in nutrition, also started using Adderall during her Biology 212 class but doesn’t consider it cheating.
“It doesn’t make you smarter or anything,” Rachel says. “It just keeps you awake and focused. It’s like coffee; it’s just better.”
James, a history major, claims Adderall can help you be a better student but it doesn’t ensure academic success.
“Yeah, it makes me really focused, but it makes me really focused on the shit I shouldn’t be focused on,” he says.
He explains that sometimes instead of spending his time studying when he’s on Adderall, he’ll play video games, browse the Internet or go out. Although Adderall has helped him write long papers all in one night, he wouldn’t get himself into that situation if he didn’t know he had Adderall on hand.
Stephen, a design student, has a prescription for Adderall but because he recently switched healthcare providers, he hasn’t had Adderall at all this semester. He says he’s had to change his study habits and can’t procrastinate as much. He learned to manage his time better, feels healthier and feels good about not being dependent on Adderall.
“You have this weird drive when you take it,” Stephen says. “It’s like you need to be doing something. It’s crazy the amount of drive you have. It’s weird when you get off of it, you completely loose that drive. It’s kind of all on you; you don’t have this crutch anymore.”
Stephen acknowledges the drug could be abused with or without a prescription.
Although Sara didn’t think she had ADHD, it was easy for her to get a prescription for Adderall. She says the prescription process required a simple test that consisted of a single page of about 15 “really obvious questions.” She answered the questions based on what she knew was expected of someone with ADHD.
ADHD is a disorder common in adolescents but is increasingly being diagnosed in adults. Common threads in the disorder are distractibility, impulsivity and sometimes hyperactivity. But how do psychologists differentiate these common behaviors of ADHD and simply the inattentiveness of youth or the effects of a stressful college lifestyle?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual, psychologists look at the onset of the problems, the degree of handicap and the reach of the effects. Symptoms must have clinically significant impairment in social, academic or occupational functioning and must be present for over six months.
In contrast to Sara’s experience, when Philips tests for ADHD, he conducts an hour-and-a-half long interview when testing for ADHD and looks at patterns in academic achievement and standardized tests, as well as IQ tests and reaction times.
Adderall’s legality doesn’t ensure complete safety. Whether prescribed or not, there is potential for abuse and there are psychological and physical health threats. This semester Sara stopped using Adderall because she didn’t feel like herself and she was loosing a lot of weight.
Similarly, after extended Adderall use, Tracy says she began losing an extreme amount of weight and was frequently irritable and not sleeping much. Stimulants, such as Adderall, are an appetite suppressant and therefore can cause serious weight loss. This can be especially dangerous for college age women, a group that has a high rate of eating disorders.
Sleep disorders, such as insomnia, are also a common side effect of stimulants. The dangers grow if the dosage is increased significantly or if the drug is mixed with alcohol.
Jonathon Kahl is a graduate student in neuroscience and psychology and teaches the drugs and behavior course. According to Kahl, changing the route of administration might pose the greatest health threat. For example, crushing and snorting Adderall as a recreational drug sends it to the brain more quickly and creates the possibility of overactivating neurons, which can lead to cell death in the brain.
The tendency for the body to continuously build up a tolerance to the drug is another dangerous aspect of Adderall. Prescribed or not, the dose must keep increasing in order to have the same effect. Continually upping the dosage increases the side effects and the likelihood of developing an addiction.
Under the United States Controlled Substance Act, Adderall is a Schedule II drug which means it is approved for medical use but has the highest potential for abuse and addiction. According to Shire Pharmaceuticals Group, the manufacturer of Adderall, medical research has found it to have no potential for addiction.
The addictive aspects of Adderall are more psychological than physical, Phillips explains.
Tracy realized her Adderall use might be a problem when she found herself using it at odd hours and making up reasons to take it.
“I felt like I needed it,” she says. “Even if I didn’t have anything to do I was wanting it. I thought ‘Okay this is getting really out of hand.’”
Tracy was able to recognize the approaching danger and decided to cut back her use to about three days a week. “I find it much easier to control,” she explains. “It’s hard to stay controlled because if you look it up, the chemical components are almost exact to cocaine.”
Kahl says chemical amphetamines do act similarly to cocaine by enhancing the release of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine. Not only does Adderall function similarly to cocaine, Kahl says in high enough doses, Adderall is stronger in some ways.
“In high enough doses, Adderall, unlike cocaine, inhibits the enzyme responsible for breaking down those drugs in the synapse, which means those neurotransmitters are going to affect the neuron for a longer period of time, so you get enhanced effects of those drugs,” he says.
With heavy use, Adderall has withdrawal symptoms that include depression and lethargy.
Tracy guesses that most people without a prescription don’t know the dangers of Adderall.
“If you’re taking it off the street you probably won’t know. But if you have a prescription you should know,” Tracy says.
Philips points out the regulation provided by doctors is an important safety aspect.
“When you see a doctor and they get your body weight and they figure out the right amount that works for you, I think the chances of you having problems with it are pretty low,” Phillips says.
Although Adderall has become more prevalent on college campuses, many students still stick to legal aids. Whether for health or moral reasons, many choose caffeine, cigarettes or fresh air to stay awake and keep focused.
“It’s hard to figure out that point where you need to stop and take a step back,” Tracy says. “[Adderall] is a dangerous thing but it’s a good thing if you know how to use it right.”