Generation Abracadabra: Prescription Drug Abuse on College Campuses

Some college students firmly believe that study doping, that is, abusing prescription drugs, helps them in their exams. The problem is, they’re taking the wrong pill.

Despair and the Return of Hope: Echoes of Mourning in Psychotherapy.
Peter C. Shabad
Jason Aronson, Inc
September 2001

“I have never been Christian, but as I was coming down from Adderall, I wanted to read the Bible from cover to cover.”

– Joanna Chiu, a University of British Columbia student on experimenting with psychostimulant Adderall in an article in her school newspaper.

On a break from studying fluid mechanics, Stanton, an engineering major, stood shivering outside the library, taking long drags on a Parliament Light. Shaking from anxiety as much as from the cold, he waited for his cigarette to burn down before returning indoors.

After a few minutes, Stanton, 22, a grizzly-bearded fifth-year senior at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, was back in the Duderstadt Center, a haven for engineering students. The Sixth Edition of Fluid Mechanics and Design and Machinery were strewn on his desk space, awaiting his return.

With bloodshot eyes and tousled hair, wearing a wrinkled flannel suitable for ice-fishing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he fit the caricature of a 2:00 AM college insomniac. Only six months away from a degree, his anxiety at a staggering level, he delved into a sea of equations and diagrams for five hours, breaking only for an occasional smoke. After all, it is Stanton versus thousands of other graduating engineers at universities across the country.

In the two weeks prior to midterms, Stanton pulled five all-nighters, but his focus was not the result of old-fashioned concentration. Instead, he was taking Adderall, an amphetamine psychostimulant used to treat attention-deficit disorder.

“You’re looking to find an edge,” Stanton says of his “study drug” usage. “You’re looking to get the study time in more quickly and efficiently than everybody else.” He adds, “If I didn’t have these drugs, I would be forced to get studying done earlier. I can plan to watch TV all day because I tell myself, I don’t need to study now, I’ll work all night and so much harder later.”

Stanton hasn’t been diagnosed with ADHD, but that’s not a problem. Despite their designation as “controlled substances” and the strict regulations limiting their dispensation, these drugs are readily available on any college campus for as little as $3 a pill through a flourishing black market or in many cases, informal exchanges between students.

“Everyone has a friend with a prescription,” Stanton says.

If pills are unavailable through friends, ADHD medications are readily available on the internet. Just try a Google search for “buy Adderall”.

Precise statistics on the number of students who have illegally finagled prescriptions for psychostimulants are unavailable, but the ADHD drug industry is booming. Total sales for ADHD drugs, which were a modest $759 million in 2000, have shot up, reaching $3.1 billion in 2004 and nearly $3.7 billion in 2007. Market analysts from Merrill Lynch predict that US ADHD sales will exceed $4 billion by 2010.

In a combined 2006 University of Michigan and Northeastern University web survey, 8 percent of the 4,580 college students surveyed revealed that they illicitly used prescription stimulants, the vast majority choosing Adderall. Various others studies indicate a far larger percentage of psychostimulant abuse — closer to 36 percent. These abuse cases range from ingesting a 10-milligram pill a half-hour before an exam to snorting copious amounts of Ritalin and partying for hours.

Students’ widespread use of psychostimulants bears with it some danger. The cardiovascular risks and the possible emergence of “new psychotic or manic symptoms” are marked – albeit in tiny print – on labels, and stories about people abusing these medications are becoming increasingly common, especially after a major Canadian recall of Adderall in February 2005 due to a spike in possible cardiovascular-related deaths.

However, an outcry over the ethical implications of these drugs in academia has remained surprisingly uncommon. Despite the drugs’ prominence on college campuses, administrators haven’t seemed to pay the issue much mind, let alone push for the sort of major policies that cover alcohol abuse. Surprisingly, students who don’t abuse study drugs aren’t outraged at the competitive advantage being enjoyed by the Stantons at their school. Why aren’t parents fuming with moral outrage and calling for condemnatory action? Where are the serious repercussions? Isn’t this cheating?

As even the most casual sports follower must have noticed, concern over Human Growth Hormones and anabolic steroids in baseball has reached a frenzy in recent years. Even the U.S. Congress intervened to save the sport’s reputation, commissioning an investigation outing hundreds of steroid-abusing baseball players. Yet study doping among college students has hardly raised comparable concerns.

Some psychologists and academics see the amphetamine phenomenon as indicative of a larger trend in our mile-a-minute society to transform one’s brain into a machine. It’s hardly a new concept: In the late 19th century, one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis, Josef Breuer, considered the human brain a finely-tuned machine capable of maximizing response time, speed, and strength. With the advent of psychoactive drugs and amphetamines, such a goal is no longer a distant target but a reality that perfectly complements the increasingly competitive and fast-paced nature of American culture. Or at least it seems to psychoanalyst Peter Shabad, author of Despair and the Return of Hope: Echoes of Mourning in Psychotherapy.

“Americans are anti-intellectual and are always action-oriented,” he says. “They are about get it done, get it done, get it done.” This emphasis on winning at all costs has fostered what he calls a “shame-based morality”, which promotes doing whatever is necessary to succeed and avoid failure rather than valuing the quality of success and the ethical code through which it was attained. The law-school matriculation mantra – “look to your right, the person sitting next to you may not be here at graduation” – perpetrates this model of student-versus-student cockfighting.

Because class rank contributes to determining one’s internship and post-graduate job opportunities, high-paying prestigious law firms prefer hiring students from the top percent of the class. This creates an environment where scavenging for any academic edge is the norm, and doing anything to stomp an opponent is nothing to be ashamed of. In the academic arena, taking a pill to ratchet up a ranking by a tenth of a point seems almost benign, especially to Jonas, 22, a struggling law student.

“If I could find some pills, I would definitely use them next time,” he says after taking his first-semester tort-law exam at New York Law School. “I don’t care what anybody says. If you don’t do everything you can that first year, who knows what will happen? There will always be a race to get ahead until some of the pressure is taken off the student.”

Perhaps Shabad is on to something important when he says that study doping exemplifies the “natural culmination of American capitalism” and the “intensification of the rat race.” Susan, a first-year medical student, also uses Adderall to study. “I don’t really tell my friends, except maybe for one other person who openly talks about it,” she says. “In college, it’s more prevalent and more talked about.”

A self-proclaimed procrastinator, Susan says using a study drug doesn’t affect her actual intelligence. “It doesn’t make me any smarter, and it doesn’t give me any more brain power.” But what it does do is keep her awake and focused so she can plow through thick medical tomes that may have been otherwise used as a stacked headrest.

Chicago-based psychologist and psychotherapist Elaine Kulp says that the “life and death meaning of exams”, and the notion that “all things are fragile and could be destroyed with one bad grade” drive academic anxiety. “If you go into the exam with that attitude, your anxiety is going to be at the ceiling,” she said.

Dr. Frederick Ettner describes patients’ faces as they walk into his office – some exhibiting clear signs of attention disorders and others simply overwhelmed by the competitive spirit of the culture they’ve been reared in. “These kids come in with sad eyes. I feel the transference of the anxiety, and I get anxious myself,” Ettner says. He asks them what they really like to do in an effort to direct them toward where their passion and enthusiasm truly lie.

Perhaps students should answer this question honestly because integrity – like attention – cannot be measured quantitatively. The rise or decline of our nation’s students and future leaders will not result from modern alchemy. But it seems too many have not yet swallowed that pill.

Editor note: Actual names have been changed.