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Myths of Adderall: debunking a college 'study drug'

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NOVEMBER 14, 2019

Over the past two decades, the presence of prescription medications, such as Adderall, have increased on college campuses across the United States. This increase in recreational use has been widely covered, but the effects of the medication have remained, for the most part, out of public scrutiny. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, has been linked to the lack of a specific neurotransmitter called norepinephrine. Medications, such as Adderall, replicate the natural functioning of norepinephrine and dopamine which increases focus. 

Psychiatrists prescribe these medications to students with ADHD to allow them the same chances of success compared to students without disabilities that can impact their ability to perform well in school.

Yet some students on college campuses who are open about using prescribed ADHD medications feel pressured by their peers to sell their pills to people who do not have ADHD. 

Adam Martin, campus senior and philosophy major, was prescribed Adderall for his ADHD right before he entered his freshman year of college.

“You can definitely tell that whenever you have Adderall, people try to buy it from you because it’s Berkeley,” Martin said. “It’s clearly something people view as a thing to use when you’re overwhelmed.”

Martin explained that some students might feign ADHD symptoms to get a prescription themselves. The process of getting ADHD medication involves completing a checklist of symptoms with a licensed psychiatrist. Through the diagnostic process, doctors rely on honesty and do not actually have the ability to prevent patients from faking symptoms.

According to an article from “The Yale Tribune,” studies suggest that about 30% of U.S. college students nationwide misuse ADHD stimulant medications, such as Adderall. It has also been reported that college students typically perceive recreational prescription medication use, including the use of Ritalin and Adderall, as more acceptable compared to taking drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Despite popular assumption, the use of ADHD medications as a “study drug” by those without ADHD has not been linked to improved test scores or greater intelligence. Some studies suggest that these medications do not benefit people who do not have ADHD and are using the medication to enhance performance as much as the public might think. The medications are much better at correcting existing deficits of norepinephrine and dopamine in people with ADHD than improving focus for people without ADHD.

Even in people who have ADHD, however, prolonged use of ADHD medications can sometimes cause beneficial effects to eventually decline. 

Before Martin’s senior year, he decided to stop taking the medication after he felt the beneficial effects had worn off.

“Once you come to a big school like Berkeley, I initially needed that external stimulus to feel something while I was doing work because, otherwise, it just felt too neutral, and I wouldn’t keep doing it,” Martin said. “I just got to the point where it became just a part of my daily routine where it didn’t boost me at all.”

Initially prescribed Adderall for his ADHD in middle school, Kayvon Afarinesh, senior and media studies major, said he and his friends used to “experiment” with various kinds of pills, using them most often for recreation.

Similar to Martin, Afarinesh cited worsening negative side effects as a major reason for his decision to take a break from Adderall in high school. 

“I had so much energy as a kid, I needed to be put on it. I honestly felt like a zombie. I’d come home, do work but with no emotion, and I could barely eat,” Afarinesh said. “It really messed with my vibe.”

Potential common mental health symptoms of people who use these medications for a long time include intense mood changes and mental cravings.

Afarinesh restarted his prescription once at UC Berkeley for focus purposes and has remained prescribed since.

Afarinesh, like Martin, said students who want to use the medication for studying or recreational use could just get it prescribed, instead of paying people with ADHD who take Adderall for pills. 

Both Martin and Afarinesh were prescribed Adderall through psychiatrists they had back home. 

The University Health Services, or UHS, website states that it doesn’t provide medication for ADHD, although counselors can refer students to local psychiatrists who treat ADHD. In April, however, the ASUC Senate passed three resolutions to expand ADHD services at the Tang Center, one of which called for UHS to provide the appropriate medications for students with ADHD, as well as train and hire on-site staffers who can treat these students at the Tang Center.

If medications to keep you focused aren’t readily available to you, Martin recommends meditation.

“The problem is that people’s brains are too scattered, and there are ways to convince your brain to give you more dopamine for stuff that isn’t chemical,” Martin said. “If you do more exercises that make you at peace with what you’re doing, and you’re generally stressed out, then you won’t need external stimulus for the dopamine.”

Contact Olivia Buccieri at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 14, 2019