Academic enhancers abused on campus
The consumption of stimulant-based “study drugs” allows students to focus and study for many hours at a time.
Editor’s note: Though using fictitious names is not common practice at the Echo, the following article uses pseudonyms (Stacey, Daphne, Victor) for students who agreed to contribute to this article.
Come Sunday evening, it seems as though every student on the Hill is crammed into cubicles in Miller Library, trying to catch up on all of the homework forgotten over the weekend. Notebooks and textbooks are piled high in stacks, laptops are plugged in to tangled extension cords and pen ink runs low.
Stacey Hayward ’12 is one of these students. With her nose already buried in a novel for a literature class, her work includes reading over 100 pages for her one class, writing a six-page paper for a second and studying for an exam on Tuesday for a third. She also hopes to fine-tune her résumé and work on a job application for which the deadline is quickly approaching.
“It feels like teachers forget that their class is not the only one students are taking,” Hayward said. “Having a heavy workload for one class is one thing, but for four classes simultaneously, it can be overwhelming. And on top of that, they expect seniors to find the time to find a job after graduation.”
For Hayward, the key to coping with the stress is by abusing the prescription drug Adderall. Adderall is a drug typically used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy.
For individuals with ADHD, Adderall is prescribed at a specific dose that has a calming effect on the individual, leading to a decrease in hyperactivity. This is because Adderall is a stimulant—an amphetamine. When prescribed the proper dosage, the stimulant has a reverse effect on ADHD individuals, allowing them to pay attention, focus and control their behavior.
Daphne Boulder ’12 was diagnosed with ADHD when she was in elementary school and has been medicated for her condition ever since. “I was prescribed Adderall when I was seven, and in high school I was switched to Vyvanse,” Boulder said. Vyvanse is a stimulant-based drug similar to Adderall, but longer lasting. Boulder also takes Focalin—a short-burst supplement—as needed.
“I was hyperactive; I couldn’t sit down and do work, or I would hyperfocus on one thing but it wasn’t always on work. I would do well in school on things I was interested in, but it was hard to get my attention if I wasn’t,” she continued.
Some students on campus, however, are using the medications for other purposes.
Academic performance-enhancing drugs, which fall under the category of “stimulants,” is the third most highly abused drug on campus, trailing behind alcohol and marijuana, respectively, according to Medical Director Paul Berkner.
“There are two groups on campus who abuse stimulant medications,” he said. “The first use them as study aids—not to get high, but to increase attention, focus and stay awake longer. The second, smaller group uses the drugs to get high by snorting and popping them with alcohol in order to counter the depressive effects of alcohol, commonly referred to as ‘speedballing.’”
As a study aid, the effects of the stimulants can be felt almost immediately. “With the Adderall I can sit in the library and do work for hours; one time I stayed in Miller for 15 hours straight doing nothing but work,” Hayward said.
Such stimulants are effective within a short window of time. “Amphetamines have a very short half-life, usually only around four hours before you need to take more to continue the effects,” Berkner said. “As your dose increases, the time increases, but if you’re using them for performance, your reactions will go up and down a lot because you’re not taking a properly prescribed dosage.”
Hayward began using Adderall in high school after she saw many of her friends who suffered from ADHD benefitting from its effects. “Even in high school I felt like I was always under so much pressure, if it wasn’t homework, it was SATs or college applications. I just went and saw my doctor at home and said I was having a hard time focusing and that my grades were suffering, and he wrote me a prescription. I know I don’t have [ADHD], but it wasn’t hurting anyone.”
Berkner admits that while some students may have had less strict prescription guidelines with hometown doctors, getting hold of ADHD medication on campus is much more of a process. Here, students need to document their diagnosis of ADHD and must sign a contract on use of medication.
At the end of her sophomore year, Boulder was reevaluated for ADHD by the Garrison-Foster Health Center so that she could receive the extra-time option that is available to students with documented ADHD.
“I didn’t have much trouble [with my ADHD] my first two years at Colby, but as the writing assignments, especially the ones in class, became longer and more difficult, I realized I should start taking advantage of the extra-time options that are available,” she said. In order to do so, she had to temporarily stop taking her medications and sit through a six-hour long evaluation.
While consumption of these stimulant-based drugs is hard to monitor and control on campus, being caught with the medications without a prescription can have strong consequences. “[Stimulants] are federally regulated medications; if you’re caught with them without a prescription, it’s a federal offense. It’s a big deal,” Berkner said.
But this threat does not keep some students from illegally selling and purchasing the drugs. Victor Draper ’14 has been selling Ritalin—a drug comparable to Adderall—from his dorm room since the middle of his first year on campus. He began taking the drug after being diagnosed with ADHD in middle school to help him focus in school. When he saw the demand for the drug on campus, however, he slowly began to wean himself to lower doses so that he could sell the extra pills for profit.
“When some of my friends found out I took Ritalin, they started asking me if they could have some, especially when finals week came around. I didn’t mind helping out my close friends, but then more and more people started asking, and some even offered to pay. That was when I realized I could make money off my own drugs,” Draper said.
Others have resisted the urge to help their friends when it comes to studying. Boulder admits to having given a pill out once, but she doesn’t know why she did it, given her strong stance on the subject.
“I don’t sell or give out my medications because I don’t think that they need it to enhance their performance. I take the medications, and I still struggle; the medications only bring me to a normal attention-span level. So when otherwise-normal people take the pills to go above and beyond what’s normal, it’s selfish,” she said. “I understand why students want to take [stimulants], but we all want to do well. It used to really frustrate me that people would take it for their own purposes.”
Students who have admitted to taking academic performance-enhancing drugs, and even those who have merely thought about it, point to the College culture as a reason for doing so. The drive to succeed is ingrained so thoroughly into students’ minds that they say they begin to do whatever it takes to try to be the best.
For Hayward, this means taking Adderall three or four nights a week on average—and more during finals week. For Boulder, it’s about balancing her capabilities with her goals.
“It’s hard because I feel like I could abuse [my medication] to be even with my peers who abuse stimulants,” Boulder said. “Even lately I’ve been taking my supplements later to stay up longer. The pressure of the College culture to do well exists, but people here rarely talk about it.”
Unlike alcohol and other prevalent drugs, stimulants are rarely brought up during first-year orientation, and hardly any information about their use and abuse is distributed to the student body.
“We promote its avoidance, but it’s mostly driven by student demand,” Berkner said. A program on the dangers of stimulant abuse was actually incorporated into the First Year seminars two years ago, but it has not been included again since.
“Where there’s a demand to do well academically, there will be a demand for tools to help students achieve it,” Draper said. “And at a school like Colby, I doubt that demand will go away anytime soon.”