Friends described lacrosse player, surfer, fraternity brother and guitarist Marcus “Kyle” Craig as the guy who was good at everything.
With a 3.5 GPA at Vanderbilt University and aims toward a career in investment banking, Craig had a bright future ahead of him. But according to ABC News, during his junior year in 2012, Craig spiraled into a psychosis of paranoia and insecurity that many believe directly resulted from his reliance on Adderall to keep him afloat with his rigorous business courses, and which ultimately led this all-American kid to step out in front of a passenger train and end his life at the age of 21.
Vyvanse, Adderall, Ritalin and other prescription ADHD drugs have helped attention deficit college and high school students for decades. They increase motivation, enhance focus and ultimately, improve academic performance. But, as research tells us, study drugs can lead to detrimental consequences, like addiction, sleep deprivation and as seen in Craig’s story, life threatening psychological breakdowns. And through easily rigged prescription tests and illegal dealing, study drugs are too easily accessed on American college campuses, a phenomenon I can attest to from my observations at Wake Forest.
First, what do these drugs actually do? Intended for those with attention-deficit disorders, they enhance cognitive functions necessary to perform in the classroom or on the job. According to CNN interviewee, psychiatrist and ADHD expert Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD stimulants "strengthen the brain's brakes and its inhibitory capacities by increasing the amount of certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine."
Alright, if the science goes over your head, then try this: they make your brain feel big and transform your stale, 10-point font accounting text into your favorite Netflix binge watch.
While illegal abuse remains popular via sharing and dealing, the intended purpose of these drugs is for students with real attention deficit issues to overcome their impairments, maintain productivity and keep up with their endless piles of course work at their respected schools. According to a study by the Journal of Physician Assistant Education, more than 90% of users take them for these purposes. Also, according to CNN, this trend is most common at private and more “elite” universities, likely because of their relatively more intensive curriculums and the competitive nature of their students (i.e., Wake Forest and Vanderbilt University). NPR cites director at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania Martha J. Farah who claims as many as 25 percent of students on some college campuses have used study drugs in the past year. But why are they so popular?
Because they work.
One student who asked to remain anonymous due to the legal implications of using without prescription in an interview with NPR in 2009 claims popping an “Addy” (Adderall) made her feel motivated and eager to hit the books.
"I would take it, and in about a half an hour, all of a sudden, looking at my journal which had all my assignments, I'd look at it and say, cool, OK," she says. "And I'd start to get more excited about work."
Wake Forest students explain that these drugs’ popularity results from the school’s go-getter culture. For those unfamiliar with the bubble of stress that is Wake Forest, the average heart rate in Farrell Hall (the business school) at any given time is probably around 150 beats per minute.
“They're rampant,” senior Ashley Hamati says when asked about the prevalence of study drugs at Wake. “When you combine a ton of pressure from home, self and all of the stress around you, with a lot of assignments that you've attached make-or-break value to, you see the drug as a necessary method of achieving goals of success.”
But, but, but if you’re prescribed, it’s illegal! ‘Uh, who cares?’ many Wake Forest students say.
“No, I’m not prescribed,” an anonymous Wake Forest sophomore says. “But it helps me get better grades. This school is hard as hell, so I really don’t feel bad about it, and I know I won’t get caught.”
Also, many students, legally and illegally, use these drugs for recreational purposes, like partying. After a long week of finance exams, divisional requirement essays, philanthropy event meetings and fraternity responsibilities, an anonymous Wake Forest junior feels he has no energy for the party that night.
“It’s ridiculous. I’m probably getting like five hours of sleep a night and when I’m awake, I’m working my ass off,” the anonymous junior says. “Popping my buddy’s Vyvanse is the best way I know to make it through the small talk with girls, have a good time and finally, call it a week.”
Many social Wake Forest students either partake in mixing study drugs with alcohol via swallowing and snorting or observe their friends do this on a weekly basis. It’s all a part of the cutthroat work hard, party hard culture here at Wake. Swallow, study, snort, drink, sleep, repeat. Sounds healthy, I know.
“People here are just generally intense whether it is about school or socializing,” an anonymous senior says. “They feel they have to always be at their best. The idea of being tired at a bar or party probably stresses them out, so they get their kick with Vyvanse, Adderall, whatever it is.”
An anonymous senior fraternity brother sees this happen all of the time.
“My friends are just so exhausted from their course loads that they feel snorting Vyvanse will help them have fun at our party that night,” the anonymous fraternity brother says. “I’m not endorsing it; that’s just the way it is.”
As popular as partying with these drugs may be, students still recognize the danger.
“I've done it before, but I don't advocate for it,” an anonymous female senior says. “It perpetuates the effects of other drugs like marijuana. And it can be very dangerous when mixed with alcohol.”
Okay. Study drugs are everywhere. They’re popular. They work. So… what’s the problem?
Well, whether you need them or not, getting your hands on them is a cinch. On college campuses like Wake Forest, whether by rigged prescription tests or illegal dealing, these attention enhancers are too easy to obtain.
First, let’s visit the prescription tests. Generally, one is deemed eligible for prescription study drugs through psychiatric and physical examination. Iowawatch.org explains that physicians with extensive ADD and ADHD knowledge conduct detailed interviews and several symptom-rating scales.
The tests are interactive. No blood work, no brain scans, none of that science crap. Are you catching my drift? You can fake it!
Candidates can literally lie on questions or exaggerate answers to convince an interviewer that they cannot concentrate on one thing for more than 10 minutes. And when the tests are rigged, students who do not truly need prescriptions receive all of the smart pills they want.
Wake Forest students expressed their thoughts on the tests’ legitimacy.
“They are a joke,” a Wake Forest senior says who asked to remain anonymous. “You can just say that you tap your pencil a lot and have trouble paying attention.”
At Wake Forest, students looking for prescriptions speak with the learning assistance center about their attention issues from where they take their prescription test with a student health psychiatrist. A prescribed anonymous senior reveals the test regiment.
“It’s insanely easy to rig,” the anonymous senior says. “The psychiatrist asks you questions like, ‘do you have trouble concentrating in car rides of 3 or more hours?’ You obviously say yes to everything, and she writes you a giant prescription for Adderall, and then, you become a millionaire during finals week.”
Prescription tests are easy to pass, and this is bad news. Why? Because if students without attention impairments abuse study drugs, they are not only putting themselves in a situation where they could reduce and potentially lose their ability to focus like they once could soberly, but they are also undermining those who really need these drugs to keep up. Also, when a student who does not actually need prescriptions receives 60 pills a month, he will likely start dealing.
He will deal a lot… And the cycle continues.
With that being said, dealing, sharing and buying study drugs illegally from student to student remains a serious legal, ethical and personal health concern on campuses across the nation. According to NPR, students say Adderall and Ritalin are bought and sold casually in the library, dorms or anywhere on campus for typically $5 a pill which shoots up to $25 around finals week.
It’s simple. Each friend group really only needs one, maybe two friends with a prescription from whom they can buy or even snag for free their personal focus enhancers.
At Wake Forest, students say the dealing process is just a text away.
“I can very easily text at least three people I know to obtain Ritalin or Adderall if I wanted to,” an anonymous female senior says. “I have heard it's easy to get a prescription, too.”
Even Wake Forest students without personal experience with the drugs understand their accessibility.
“I have never done a study drug before but I know how easy it is to get one at this school,” an anonymous female senior says. “People use them like Tylenol.”
“It’s crazy how easy it is,” an anonymous male senior says. “And it’s so casual; it happens at the pit, in Farrell, the library, anywhere.”
This dealing trend continues at other prestigious universities, too.
“Dealing is huge here because it’s impossible to get caught, and everyone wants it,” Adderall prescribed anonymous Miami of Ohio senior says. “I don’t like dealing them out though because my parents pay for them.”
So, whether it be through a faked test or a deal in the food court, study drugs easily obtained on college campuses. But why does this matter?
First, sharing, dealing and obtaining un-prescribed study drugs is illegal, and a significant portion of study drugs on college campuses are obtained illegally. We have already established that Wake Forest users seem not to care about this, and CNN claims that about 30% of college students use stimulants non-medically.
Also, besides the fact that those obtaining these drugs are breaking the law, there are several negative side effects of overuse, whether for studying – legally or illegally – or partying.
Why do these drugs have intense side effects? As explained by ABC News, study drugs trick the brain into thinking that it does not need dopamine, and dopamine is the only chemical in the brain that once damaged, never comes back.
"That [damaged dopamine] results in severe depression and mood dysregulation," explains Fallon Schultz, a licensed clinical social worker and addiction specialist from Howell, N.J.. Other potential disorders associated with study drugs include irreversible schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Additionally, according to CNN, these drugs include other short term consequences such as restlessness, headaches, irritability, loss of appetite, nervousness and changes in sex drive.
These side effects are reported on campuses all over the country.
“If you use it right, then you can get a lot out of it, but I think taking it every day is dumb and messes with people’s heads,” the anonymous Miami of Ohio senior says says. “And that’s how doctors recommend you take it – every day. It messes up your personality, too. It’s kind of like cocaine.”
Wake Forest users report negative side effects, too.
“I only take them occasionally, like during finals week or if I have major papers or exams to study for,” an anonymous female senior says. “Apart from that, I don't take them because I don't like how it makes me stay up for extremely long hours.”
A Wake Forest senior who asked to remain anonymous due to his self-proclaimed unpopular opinion theorizes on the long-term consequences of abusing study drugs.
“I think it is dangerous and is going to have long term negative results,” an anonymous senior says. “I believe it should be banned in an academic setting.”
But they are addictive, so frequent users will likely keep using despite their knowledge of these adverse effects. According to Farah, because study drugs are amphetamine-based, they can become habit-forming and ultimately cause dependence in the user. And considering just the addiction piece, we encounter a serious problem. Users, if they continue down the path of popping these drugs more and more often, will likely develop dependence.
NPR follows the story of an anonymous college senior who suffered some of the dire consequences of frequent Adderall use during her freshman and sophomore years. This user noticed her own addictive behaviors, claiming that the more she used it, the more she wanted it. When she came to terms with her addiction, she realized she wouldn’t be able to afford her habit, so she decided to quit.
"It takes away your own coping skills and your own ability to evolve your own study skills and work ethic. So it's kind of an easy way out,” the anonymous user says. And she says it made her feel "like a lesser person," relying on the drug to do well. During her last two years, she stayed away from Adderall and made good grades.
Wake Forest Psychology major Dakota Lee understands the science behind the consequences of study drug dependence.
“It may be helpful for a one night crash course but over time it can prevent natural learning by diseasing your mind with addiction,” Lee says. “If you rely on study drugs, ultimately, the brain receptors responsible in learning and memorization become conditioned to form only under the presence of a chemical found in the drug.”
Aside from the negative physical and psychological side effects and potential dependence factors, abusing study drugs proposes some serious ethical dilemmas, as well. A popular question arises when considering the large amount of students who use study drugs illegally: Is this unfair? Or even worse, is it cheating?
Wake Forest students express their thoughts on the ethical implications.
“I personally find Adderall unfair like PEDs in sports,” a Wake Forest male senior says who asked to remain anonymous. “I have never taken it, and nobody I know who takes it actually needs it.”
Other Wake Forest students do not necessarily think it’s cheating but still find it unethical.
“I actually do think it’s unfair when un-prescribed people take them,” senior Marybeth Lawrence says. “I wouldn’t say it’s specifically cheating, but I do think it gives them an unfair advantage.”
Senior Brooke Lucas agrees.
“I just don’t think it’s ethical,” Lucas says. “I wouldn’t necessarily call it cheating, but I don’t think it’s right.”
Still, not all college students buy the cheating argument.
“I don’t think it’s cheating if you don’t need it, but it does offer an advantage when you’re studying,” the anonymous Miami of Ohio senior says. “But it’s like the same way coffee or red bull would give you an advantage, just a little stronger.”
Regardless of one’s opinion, a strong case exists on the front that those who are abusing study drugs illegally are not only committing a felony but possibly violating their honor codes, as well. If you are someone who takes honor seriously, this is an important argument to take into account when deciding whether or not to use the drug illegally or even from a rigged test.
Clearly, abuse and overuse of study drugs illegally and even legally is a significant problem on college campuses across the country. But, how do we fix this?
First, implement stricter prescription tests. As previously mentioned, prescription tests can be rigged at Wake Forest and elsewhere. Tests could improve in accuracy by adding more questions and several rounds of tests with different psychologists. Also, attention deficit symptoms can be vague and misleading, so continuing research on what sorts of questions best target true ADD and ADHD symptoms would decrease the amount of students receiving prescriptions who do not truly need them and thus, the amount of students obtaining the drugs illegally via dealing and sharing.
Secondly, implement stricter enforcement and awareness. Study drugs like Vyvanse do not make you stumble over air and text your ex-girlfriend like alcohol or laugh at trees and turn your eyes demon-red like marijuana, so they are harder to spot. So first, educate professors and campus police on how to spot dealings. Merely keeping an eye out for students with nervous smirks and obsessively scanning eyeballs in a corner back table of the food court and exchanging dollar bills and plastic bags could reduce public dealing. To implement an even stricter regiment against dealing, force those prescribed to submit their prescription bottles twice a month so their doctors can check if they have the correct amount.
Additionally, create a more open academic culture. At Wake Forest, professors are generally approachable and encourage students to take advantage of office hours. But I know this is not the case at all universities. If state school professors with larger lecture rooms were encouraged by their respected administrations to invite student health speakers, attention deficit researchers and psychologists to speak of the dangers of abusing and misusing study drugs, campuses could instill caution and reduce overuse.
Also, by stressing the importance of professor office hours and individual student communication, universities could create stronger professor-student relationships. Then, students may become more comfortable with their workloads and their professors’ expectations and may then be less likely to abuse study drugs to make up for challenges with time management and logistical issues with assignments. And even in more intimate classroom settings at private schools like Wake Forest, there is always room for improvement on this front.
Similarly, stigmas surrounding counseling centers and mental illness still plague universities, which results in stressed out students reluctant to take that step for an appointment, fearful of being ridiculed or thought of differently by their peers. Through school newspaper features on the dangers of mental illness, campus posters encouraging students to reach out for help and psychiatrist guest speakers lecturing on the importance of accepting stress-related anxiety, schools could start the conversation, kill the stigma and encourage more stressed students to take advantage of their counseling centers. Then, if stressed students used these outlets, they would likely learn useful stress coping and reduction tools and become less likely to rely on study drugs to manage their hectic schedules.
And most importantly, focus on the student himself. When a student like Kyle Craig depends on Vyvanse to crank through a 10-page paper the night before it is due on one occasion and finds success, what will stop him from using the same strategy next time? I think we are selling ourselves short. Instead of depending on a focus enhancer, plan ahead, shut off your phone, work in a distraction free environment or clear your mind with exercise. There are many ways to improve focus for those who do not need study drugs.
When a Wake Forest student who has the capacity to write a high quality U.S. History essay on the impact that racial tension had on 20th century American politics undermines his ability to focus, he is not only patronizing those who truly need the drugs to stay afloat, but he is putting himself in a position where he may lose the motivation and self-assurance that is somewhere inside of him. There are students who would jump off a plane to acquire that ability, so why should one waste and possibly deteriorate that gift of focus in a study drug binge?
Don’t sell yourself short.