Under stress, students turn to Adderall for academic, social help

by Savannah Maher | 10/9/15 7:09am

Halfway through fall 2015, Connie ’18 was immersed in her first exam period at Dartmouth and was finding it difficult to live up to her own academic standards.

Like many of her classmates, Connie had never had to struggle in high school — her schoolwork had come easily to her.

“I just never had to work very hard to do well,” she said.

Connie — and other students interviewed for this story — have had their names changed to protect their anonymity.

But after pulling two consecutive all-nighters cramming for a chemistry exam, intellect alone could not get Connie through an eight-page research paper. Bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, Connie was thinking about calling it a night and turning in her first college essay a day late when a friend offered her some help in the form of a little orange pill.

“I had never tried [Adderall], but lots of my friends had,” she said. “It wasn’t a big deal — I just figured I’d try it if it could help.”

In the year since she first used prescription stimulants without a prescription, Connie says she has used Adderall “sporadically” when she needs extra help staying awake and focusing on academic work.

Situations like Connie’s are not uncommon at the College, counselling and human development director Mark Reed said.

“Dartmouth is incredibly unstructured compared to what most students are used to,” Reed said. “[Students] get here and the caliber of academic work goes up, and suddenly they’re involved in lots activities, so they struggle to organize their time.”

Some students in this position turn to resources at Dick’s House for help, often seeking a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the subsequen prescription for analeptic stimulants meant to treat the disorder.

Reed emphasized that, in these cases, Dick’s House tests for many possible causes of inattentiveness, including anxiety, depression and physical ailments like mononucleosis and anemia in addition to ADHD. But several students expressed that prescriptions for drugs like Adderall are not hard to come by.

“If you want Adderall or Ritalin, you can find a way to get a prescription,” James ’17 said.

James uses Adderall in “binges” throughout each term to improve his academic work, he said.

This sentiment was echoed by Max ’17, who was able to get an ADHD diagnosis from a psychiatrist after his senior year of high school, but occasionally chooses to buy stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin from friends rather than obtain a prescription for daily use.

Max said that he has never used Adderall more than twice a week during his time at Dartmouth, and that he uses it much less frequently now than he did during his freshman and sophomore years. He regularly relies on coffee, energy drinks, supplements like NeuroFuse and even pure caffeine powder to maintain his late-night study schedule, but will turn to prescription stimulants when he needs to “go into work mode” for extended periods of time.

“I’ll get to a point where I have two or three huge assignments due on a Friday, and I haven’t started anything by Wednesday night, so I’ll just say ‘Okay, I need to just work for two days straight,’” he said.

James said that he uses stimulants after periods of significant procrastination.

“I take it when I’ve fallen behind, so I can be incredibly productive and excited about work for a few days in a way that’s just hard to maintain when you’re sober,” he said.

Both Max and James said that they were able to identify students willing to sell their prescription pills through friends of friends, often within their respective Greek houses. “The Greek system is great for a lot of things,” James said. “One of those things happens to be buying and selling drugs.”

Reed said that the Dick’s House staff is aware that some students misuse their prescriptions, but that the issue is “difficult to police.”

“Unfortunately, people with attention deficit tend to lose things, including their medication,” he said.

Students often need their prescription replaced before a scheduled refill because it can be lost or misplaced, he said.

“Our standard rule is that if a prescription is lost, we replace it once,” Reed said. “The second time, the student has the option of either waiting for their normal refill date, or we talk about switching him or her on to a non-stimulant medication.”

Ben ’17, who received an Adderall prescription in his junior year of high school, said that he has never personally abused the drug but has sold his pills to friends in the past.

“I get approached a decent amount, but only over [sophomore summer] did it become something that people other than my closest friends would ask about,” he said. “Around finals, it was two to four people every week asking to buy it off me.”

Ben said that he generally prefers not to sell his prescription, but does so to help out friends who are struggling with their academic workload.

“If I can sustain not taking it for a day or two, I’ll sell it to a friend,” he said. In addition to their function as an academic steroid, students say that drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are often used as party drugs on campus.

Sarah ’16 said that she and her friends often use prescription stimulants “casually” before going out.

“I’ll take it if I’m tired or something — just a small amount for that extra bump,” she said.

James also reported that recreational use was common within his social circle, although he’s only taken it “once or twice” for non-academic purposes.

“Instead of taking it as a pill, people will crush it up and snort lines of it,” James said.

Snorting the drug rather than swallowing it allows the drug to enter the bloodstream faster and makes its effects more temporary and intense.

“It makes you really excited, so you have a better time going out,” James said. “You’re able to drink more because your [alcohol] tolerance is incredibly high, plus you’re super focused so you’re better at pong.”

Reed confirmed that mixing stimulants with alcohol increases tolerance of alcohol, adding that this effect often brings about dangerous results.

“Stimulants keep you from passing out ­— one of the ways your body protects itself against alcohol poisoning,” he said. “You stay awake to push your blood alcohol level so high that you would normally stop breathing, but you’ve got the stimulant there, and when that wears off, you’re in a lot of trouble.” Abuse of prescription stimulants can bring about a number of mental health challenges for students, especially when stimulants are used as a substitute for sleep, Reed said.

“It’s not a good idea to use stimulants to try and stay awake, whether it’s for academics or partying,” he said. “At some point you’re going to pay. Your body’s going to have to catch up.”

When asked about the negative effects of taking Adderall, James described the “crash” that typically follows his stimulant use.

“You don’t treat your body well when you’re on Adderall. You don’t sleep, you don’t eat very much, and that catches up to you when the effects wear off,” he said. “So it’s like a hangover, but you’re even more useless [afterward]. Not to mention the psychological dependence — you start to feel like you need it.”

Stimulant abuse presents serious consequences for a “few students per term” at Dick’s House, often in the form of psychiatric episodes, Reed said. He expects that many students experience more moderate health-related consequences as a result of stimulant abuse, but do not seek help.

Many students expressed a desire to be less dependent on the drug.

“It’s totally something I wish I didn’t do,” Connie said. “I wish I could plan and utilize my time better, and not have to rely on a pill to make me functional and productive.”

But the now-sophomore does not plan to stop using Adderall any time soon.

“It’s super commonplace here. There’s no negative social feedback for using it,” she said. “And I just think, ‘I’m going to do whatever works to get things done.’”