Finals stress can lead some students to substance abuse

Michael Tao/Staff

Finals and stress are synonymous at UC Berkeley. Academic standards at the campus — ranked first among public universities by U.S. News & World Report — are predictably high, and the consequent pressure comes to a head during finals week.

To alleviate stress, the campus instituted Reading, Review and Recitation Week in 2010. But even with a week to prepare for final exams, students’ need to continue working can drive them to take measures that will enable them to read, write or program longer, including ones that could damage their health.

Coffee and highly caffeinated energy drinks are common solutions for weary students, but some feel pressured to seek more powerful stimulants like Adderall, a medication commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD.

The use of this medication without a prescription has become increasingly common in schools, including prestigious institutions like Columbia University, where five students were arrested in 2010 for selling Adderall to their peers.

At UC Berkeley, the Adderall trade has yet to make waves in the campus community. No students have been caught distributing any prescription stimulants in the past two years, said UCPD spokesperson Lt. Eric Tejada.

Although students seek out Adderall because of its potency as a stimulant, the drug can actually disrupt studying or test-taking by causing nervousness, restlessness and headaches, according to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

Additionally, Adderall can be habit-forming and create a need for users to take increasingly larger doses, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns.

Despite the potential consequences, students are finding ways to get Adderall to aid their studies.

One UC Berkeley senior who wished to remain anonymous said he received an Adderall pill from a friend who had a prescription in the fall 2011 semester. He had three finals scheduled for one day and did not believe he could successfully complete them without the aid of Adderall.

After getting a total of three hours of sleep in the two days leading up to those finals, the student took the pill after completing one final, at about midday, and remained awake until 4 a.m. the next day.

“It made me extremely jittery,” the student said. “My last midterm ended at 10 p.m., but I wasn’t tired, so I went to see a movie.”

“Given the choice, I’d rather manage my time well than take Adderall again and chance addiction,” the student said. “If I was to ever take it again, it’d have to be for a very similar circumstance, like if I need to take the GRE or MCAT where the test is four or five hours.”

Adderall is selling for up to $7 per pill around campus, the senior said.

Students who are prescribed Adderall to treat ADHD say they require the drug in order to sustain focus while they study instead of the matter being a choice. UC Berkeley sophomore Thomas Engel has taken Adderall by prescription since middle school, when he was diagnosed with the disorder, and he says he can hardly function without it.

“I can’t keep my mind on tasks that I want to do,” Engel said. “My brain wants to do 10 things at a time all the time, and if I don’t take the medication, it’ll make me very inefficient.”

Similar to what sometimes happens with medical marijuana, some students can find doctors who will easily prescribe Adderall, Engel said, but overall standards for diagnosis of ADHD are high. Representatives for the Tang Center could not confirm whether any students have ever been caught lying to seek a prescription.

“During my first semester, I tried not to tell anyone I was taking Adderall because I didn’t want them to ask for it,” Engel said. “You hear about how it’s abused all the time, and I wanted to avoid that.”

Contact Christopher Yee at [email protected].