Editor’s note: This story uses quotes from two OU students who discussed their use of prescription stimulants but asked to remain anonymous out of fear of legal repercussions. In this story, these students’ names have been changed to Sarah White and John Smith. Their identities are known to The Daily.
Abuse of prescription stimulants among college students is extremely common, especially for those who struggle with addiction and mental illness.
The amount of college students who take ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)/ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) medications such as Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse continues to increase each year, and the percentage of college students who report using these stimulant medications without a prescription ranges from 5 to 35 percent, according to the Center on Addiction.
Abuse of prescription stimulants is defined as taking the medicine in a way or dose other than prescribed, taking someone else’s prescription stimulant or using it to get a high, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Dr. Tanya Zielinski, a psychiatrist based in Grapevine, Texas, said prescription stimulants can be very addictive, especially for those who already struggle with substance abuse and mental illness because it can be used as a coping mechanism.
“Anything in the stimulant category goes through the addiction pathway, which is commonly referred to as the reward circuitry,” Zielinski said. “The kids that misuse stimulants are more likely to suffer from mental illness or substance abuse than your average college student.”
Sarah White, an OU student, said she struggles with depression and anxiety and uses a friend’s prescription stimulants to help her mental illnesses. White said she has tried to get a prescription for a prescription stimulant before but can’t because she does not suffer from ADD or ADHD.
“Medication can give you the drive to get out of bed on the days when you are feeling too depressed to do so,” White said. “My thoughts tend to race and make me very anxious, especially when it comes to school, and prescription stimulants help me to better control this.”
The risk of addiction to prescription stimulants is very low if you’re prescribed the medication, but the risk is much higher if the medication is taken without a prescription or snorted, Zielinski said.
Zielinski said when students snort prescription stimulants, it can have the same effects as methamphetamine or cocaine, and the risk of addiction and overdose is higher when taking stimulants this way.
“If you're snorting it and you're abusing these medicines, it can have the same potential effects as using speed or cocaine,” Zielinski said. “If you swallow (the medication) and it's delivered through the gut, it doesn't really affect the addiction circuitry because the speed of delivery really has a lot to do with it. So the way that some students use these medicines is by crushing it and snorting it to get high.”
Because of the potential for prescription stimulants to cause a high, some students use them to mix with alcohol or illegal substances.
John Smith, a former OU student, said he has used prescription stimulants to party but not on a regular basis.
“I used the medications to stay up when I was going to be out late with friends,” Smith said. “This was normally mixed with alcohol, not weed.”
However, Zielinski said most college students use prescription stimulants for academic purposes.
“Usually what (students) do is use it as a performance-enhancing drug,” Zielinski said. “So a lot of the people that are using it don't actually have ADD or ADHD, so they use it for tests or to try to stay up at night and study for tests.”
About three-quarters of stimulant abusers use the drug for school to help them stay awake, focus and study for tests, according to the National Center for Health Research.
Smith said he used prescription stimulants frequently while at OU to help him stay awake while studying and that he only used them for long or difficult tasks.
“I used the medication because it allowed me to stay up longer and be more focused while working,” Smith said. “I have a terrible problem with falling asleep when I’m studying, so the medication would counteract this problem.”
The reason these medications are so popular among college students is because they are easily accessible, and most students get them through friends with a prescription for a stimulant, Zielinski said.
“It is very widely known from research that (students) get it from other college students with prescriptions,” Zielinski said. “The way they do it is by figuring out which people are being treated for ADD or ADHD and they offer them money to get their drugs.”
White said she gets prescription stimulants from one of her close friends, but in the past, she got them from drug dealers.
“I get Vyvanse from a friend of mine who has a prescription for it,” White said. “In the past, I have bought Adderall and Vyvanse from people I knew, as well as drug dealers.”
Although taking prescription stimulants as directed puts you at a much lower risk of addiction, Zielinski said there are many uncomfortable or even dangerous side effects.
“Stimulants can make your heart beat too fast, and you can get overstimulated, which doesn’t feel good, and then when it wears off you can have a crash,” Zielinski said. “You can have side effects like akathisia (restlessness), have insomnia and suffer from sleep deprivation or become underweight because your appetite is so suppressed.”
Some studies have shown Adderall and Ritalin can have negative side effects of blurred vision, gastrointestinal problems, irritability, reduced circulation and increased heart rate and blood pressure, according to the National Center for Health Research.
These drugs can even be deadly for those with an underlying heart condition by causing cardiac arrest or death, and the risk of this greatly increases for those taking these medications without a prescription, according to the National Center for Health Research.
Smith said he has experienced many side effects from taking these medications.
“The side effects I have felt are nausea, fluctuation of body temperature, headaches, loss of appetite, depression, anxiety and lack of sleep,” Smith said. “Not all of these happen every time, and most of the time the only side effects felt are fluctuation of body temp, loss of appetite and loss of sleep. I found myself getting depressed and angry, specifically when I took Ritalin.”
White said she has also encountered different side effects from prescription stimulants, especially irritability and insomnia.
“I will sometimes become irritable if someone tries to distract me from doing my schoolwork,” White said.
Along with having many negative side effects, prescription stimulants are also a Schedule II drugs, which means the Drug Enforcement Agency considers them highly addictive, according to the National Center for Health Research.
The federal penalty for a first offense of possession of a prescription stimulant can be up to one year in prison, a $1,000 fine or both, according to American Addiction Centers. The penalty for distributing Schedule II substances is a fine of up to $5 million and up to 20 years in prison for a first offense.
White said even though she has a lot of side effects from prescription stimulants and it is illegal for her to use them, the benefits outweigh the negatives.
“For me, the side effects don’t bother me that much because they help me in so many ways,” White said. “I do worry about getting caught, but since I get them from a friend, the chances of me getting caught are pretty slim, I think.”