Content warning: Drug use, addiction, depression.
Take a look around Berkeley during finals week, and you’ll see plenty of students on Adderall, Ritalin or Vyvanse. Kids bent over laptops at Strada, not moving for hours in Wurster Hall, amphetamine fueled and clicking away. Some of these students are medicated for ADHD or depression, but many others are abusing prescription medication to study.
In college, I regularly witness what many adults would consider frequent and reckless substance abuse. Most students see it as normal, and when it comes to taking stimulants to “grind,” they don’t shy away. This is the unspoken epidemic.
This isn’t about neurodivergent students or kids misdiagnosed with ADHD. This is about adolescent health, about young people who wander into college and believe prescription stimulants will solve their problems. Students illegally on these drugs aren’t just using them as an isolated experience: They’re buying them from friends and taking them every day of finals. They’re becoming addicted to artificial happiness hormones that chemically alter the human brain and later leave them drained of dopamine, alone and burnt out in a sea of student ID numbers.
When I ask students why they take the drugs, the answer is actually quite clear: to get ahead. College environments lead students directly to prescription drug abuse. At prestigious, high-pressure institutions such as UC Berkeley, the effect is exponentially worse. It’s the kind of elite university camaraderie where your friends might not share answers, but they will share pills. The euphoria from an Adderall rush may seem like enough to cure the epidemic of depression found at many academically rigorous schools, but withdrawal from stimulant dependence is also directly associated with depressive symptoms.
At UC Berkeley, it’s easy to feel like everyone is doing “more” and “better” than you. It’s the sleepless Silicon Valley start-ups, the all-nighters in Doe Library, the sold out Quokkas. There’s a social aspect to stimulant drugs at a “work hard, play hard” school as well — students in Greek Life are more likely to abuse them because they keep them awake to party.
Stimulant abuse raises several other ethical concerns. Is it fair for students who are illicitly using these drugs to take exams? Will Adderall actually help someone without ADHD outperform their peers? Studies actually suggest the “cognitive enhancement” felt in individuals taking stimulants that are not prescribed to them does not improve academic performance and may even only be a placebo effect. In fact, those abusing prescription stimulants are further creating stigmas and concern around their use for the other millions of individuals who actually need the medication. Using these drugs without a legitimate diagnosis can lead to psychosis, arrhythmia, insomnia, seizures and overdose.
Even when a stimulant might help someone “get ahead,” these students only make expectations for performance more difficult on themselves and their peers. By pushing past the limits of what is physically possible from a regular human, we may set the bar too high for the “A+” standard professors will now hold everyone else to.
The market definitely does discriminate — drugs are only available if you can afford them, and medical grade pharmaceuticals require solid connections to avoid the risk of drugs cut or laced with Fentanyl and other chemicals. My peers exchange anecdotes about flocking in droves to lie to their psychiatrists and pick up a pill bottle, just to turn around and sell it again. Big Pharma in the United States profits from our constant consumption of these products — while many developments in modern medicine have created necessary and life saving medications, the role that financial incentive plays in the attitudes of pharmaceutical companies toward U.S. healthcare cannot be denied.
Our collective physical and mental wellbeing has certainly suffered at large due to the pandemic, but it is unclear if medication is the answer to all of our questions. The opioid epidemic, as a reminder, is set to kill an additional 1.2 million people by 2029, with overdose deaths since 1999 increasing more than 500%.
So when does a pill begin to hurt instead of help? Studies estimate 20% or more of college students have taken medical stimulants that were not prescribed to them. College-age youth abusing drugs such as Adderall are much more likely to become polysubstance users, mixing pills with marijuana or alcohol and finding a gateway to other stimulants like cocaine. This type of drug use is also associated with risky or impulsive behaviors, exacerbated by college students who perceive Adderall abuse as casual. Many who use drugs this way see recreational amphetamine as “both physically harmless and morally acceptable” as they attempt to minimize and justify its effects.
Solving the college addiction to Adderall should not be another war on drugs fueled by conservative attitudes about drug criminalization. Instead, the pharmaceutical industry must confront the overmedicated crises it has created from profiting off of America’s cyclical addiction to stimulant and opioid prescriptions. Stimulants do not make us smarter. Students, especially, need help from professionals, support from their communities, and for people to talk about what’s going on. We need holistic therapies, acceptance, counseling, empathy and a change in priorities. It’s time for us to reevaluate the cultures surrounding prestige and academics for our own health and happiness, and curb the harmful misuse of prescription drugs on the way to our degrees.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357)