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Study Drug Epidemic Says More About Society than College Life


Terms like "academic doping" have been all the buzz, as performance-oriented drugs continue to rival the recreational sort among student bodies. After decades of largely flying beneath the radar, study drugs like Adderall have become as mainstream to college life as binge drinking and the freshman 15. But as parents, health experts, school administrators and even Congressman struggle to get a handle on the growing epidemic, they may be missing the bigger point.

For nearly a decade, we've been exploring the role of performance enhancing drugs in sport as more than a fringe element of cheating. Increasingly, the same phenomenon is presenting itself in other fiercely competitive areas, including academia. The culture of using drugs to get an edge – followed by the culture of using drugs to stay on a level playing field with those who do – are less specific to athletic or academic life, however, than that of society at large.

Prescription drugs such as Adderall, a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, have been a popular study aid for a long time. In fact, I remember first hearing of someone buying ADHD meds off of a student in order to study better all the way back in 1996, when I was a junior in college.

But in recent years their abuse has become much more widespread, even commonplace, at many universities and even at high schools. The drugs, which can increase focus and concentration for prolonged periods, are often abused as fuel for marathon study sessions, test taking and completing research projects.

Like all prescription drugs, Adderall and its competitors have potential side effects, including a dangerous increase in blood pressure, irregular heart rate, fainting, seizures, depression and even hallucinations. Because many students often take more than the prescribed dosage, the danger of harmful side effects is compounded.

Many students freely admit to using the prescription drugs for academic purposes and justify the risks by citing the highly-competitive workforce they will be entering, the cost of their education and the pressure to get A's instead of C's in order to get a job that validates their investment – along with the decades of loan repayments that go along with it. There's certainly something to be said for their concerns.

But critics also point out an important factor that often escapes the students, as well as those aiming to solve the problem. Namely, that it is not just the danger of the drugs that should have us concerned. When it becomes commonplace for students to simply medicate themselves through academic challenges, they are deprived important experiences that can help them develop important coping skills, while building an endurance to workplace stress and adversity that they will surely face in the outside world.

However, if they considered their own experience in the outside world, too many students would see examples of such coping mechanisms being the norm. The CDC reports that antidepressants are now the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States – more than medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, allergies or even headaches.

Factor in all of the adults who are prescribed anti-anxiety drugs like benzodiazepines, or mood stabilizing drugs and there is a good chance that they have had someone close to them exist with the aid of a regular drug therapy. Extend that umbrella to cover weight loss, sleep aids, etc. and you can easily see that we have created a culture in which managing the challenges of life through medicine is the norm. Perhaps what we're seeing in academia is the logical extension of that mentality?

To be sure, study drugs preceded ADHD meds – or even ADHD as a recognized disorder. Before Adderall, students often used black beauties, Sudafed and other pseudoephedrine-based over the counter amphetamines, even cocaine and meth, to fuel study binges. The difference in the mainstreaming of the tactic might have something to do with increasingly competitive academic environments, but I also can't help but think that not unlike other drugs, the legality of their usage has profoundly impacted their status.

There now exists an entire mainstream culture of white-coat, doctor-prescribed, FDA-approved drugs that is still looked upon quite differently than the supposedly more elicit world of illegal narcotics, even though many of the prescription drugs are much more powerful and addictive than their street-level counterparts.

Many have argued that Adderall abuse is important because it will be a gateway to illegal drugs, but studies do not suggest so. The reason might be more simple than we think. For starters, in many cases the penalties involved with selling and abusing prescription drugs are more relaxed than illegal ones, as are the social stigmas attached to their abuse. Secondly, it is simply not very difficult for someone to legally access powerful prescription drugs in a system that is so subjective in terms of whether they need them. Consider that 11 percent of school-aged kids have already been “diagnosed” with ADHD.

So while people who regularly use such prescription drugs may not be likely to move on to illegal ones, we might want to consider whether they become perfect candidates for a lifetime of largely self-directed medication via the legal route. Then again, considering the profitability of legally drugging as many Americans as possible, that might well be the point.


Lexapro Land: The Questionable Science and Obscene Profitability of Antidepressants in America

Published Thursday, November 18, 2010 2:17 am

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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