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Adderall Abuse on College Campuses: Everything You Need to Know

By Will Solomon, Marta Manning
Adderall may appeal to students due to its ability to boost energy and enhance focus, but it can be extremely dangerous when misused. Learn more about this drug’s presence on U.S. college campuses.

If you’re a busy college student, you may see Adderall as a convenient tool to improve your focus and achieve better grades, but the drug is far from harmless. You may not be aware of the long-term consequences of relying on this prescription stimulant, a mixture of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. When misused, Adderall can lead to drug dependence, emotional volatility, muscle pain, cardiovascular damage, and other problems. In short, Adderall use can readily lead to abuse—a problem that is especially prevalent among college students. Read on for answers to 7 common questions about Adderall abuse on college campuses.

1. What percentage of college students use stimulants?

College life can be stressful, often involving heavy workloads and intense pressure to perform academically, along with complementary social stressors. For these and other reasons, stimulants are particularly prevalent on college campuses. 

While many college students are prescribed stimulants for legitimate medical reasons—including, in particular, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—abuse rates of stimulants on college campuses are high. While exact numbers are hard to pin down, a 2018 article in the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education reports that an estimated 20% of college students abuse prescription stimulants—most often by using drugs for which they do not have a prescription. The study also notes that the presence of prescription stimulants on college campuses has increased notably in recent years.

2. Why do college students use prescription stimulants nonmedically?

College students may use prescription stimulants nonmedically for a variety of purposes, but reasons generally center around the varied pressures—and enjoyments—of university life.  

College students abuse stimulants for both academic and recreational reasons,” Michael J. McGrath, MD and Medical Director of the Ohana Luxury Alcohol Rehab, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

For some, the reasons are primarily related to schoolwork. “Many students abuse stimulants because they believe that the stimulants help them study and help them stay focused,” McGrath says. Students may perceive that stimulants can help them cope with heavy workloads—staying up later, studying more for tests, or improving focus. Stimulant use can also have a social basis, providing more energy or confidence at parties, or a unique “high” when mixed with other drugs, including alcohol.

3. Why do college students abuse Adderall, specifically?

Like other stimulants prescribed for ADD and ADHD, Adderall can be easy to obtain. According to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 2 in 3 teens and young adults who abuse prescription stimulants get the drug from friends or relatives.

Adderall’s ease of access is a part of its draw. A 2018 article in the journal PLOS ONE noted that 11% of US children were diagnosed with ADHD in the year 2011, a 41% increase from 2003. This has led to correspondingly rising rates of prescription of ADHD medications like Adderall—ultimately meaning that many of these medications are increasingly accessible, even for individuals without a prescription. 

Adderall also has a specific social function on many college campuses. Psychologist Lucia Wallis Smith, LPC, NCC, CCATP, tells WebMD Connect to Care that many college students see taking Adderall as “part of the college experience." Some students use Adderall to chase away hangovers after nights spent partying and binge-drinking, Smith says. The stimulant can interact with alcohol and other drugs, increasing the likelihood of alcohol poisoning and high-risk behavior.

Adderall can have other social functions as well. “Some of the most common adverse effects of Adderall include loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss,” Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, MS, CASAC, and therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist in New York City tells WebMD Connect to Care. “Some college students, especially women, may take stimulants as a means to lose weight.”

Finally, in contrast to other stimulants, Adderall is often perceived as more “benign”—even if this is not really the case. It may appear to have a more constructive social function than a drug like cocaine, for instance, or be less likely to trigger severe health consequences.

In many ways, Adderall simply meets the needs of many contemporary college students. “College is often a high-pressure environment, both socially and academically, and Adderall provides students with a way to meet these demands,” psychologist and owner of Anchor Counseling & Wellness Rebecca Cowan, PhD, LPC, NCC, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “They can stay up all night socializing with friends and use Adderall to help stay alert and focused the next day when writing a paper or studying for an exam.”

4. Do stimulants make you smarter?

The perception of improved academic performance is certainly one of the draws of drugs like Adderall. Indeed, stimulants may offer the experience of short-term academic benefits—use of Adderall may assist in staying up all night to complete a significant paper, for instance—which may lead to the perception that they make users smarter. 

But this is not the case. “Stimulants do not make you ‘smarter,’ but they can help individuals maintain energy and concentration,” Sternlicht says. “Subsequently, students may correlate their stimulant use with improved academic performance.”

In fact, among many other negative effects, recurrent stimulus use can have negative impacts on cognitive abilities. “Interestingly enough, misusing stimulants may actually impair performance on certain tasks,” Holly Schiff, Psy..D., licensed clinical psychologist at Jewish Family Services in Greenwich, Connecticut, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “Stimulants may induce a placebo effect because people perceive that they are thinking more efficiently without actually doing so.”

“The problem with these drugs is that a person may develop a dependence on them,” McGrath says. “If they are abused or not used as prescribed, then there could be significant negative side effects that can counteract any benefits a person may get from using the drug. In the end, abuse of these drugs may make academic performance worse, because of the side effects.” In other words, the short-term benefits of stimulants like Adderall—even where they do exist—will inevitably be outweighed by medium and long-term negative effects.

5. How many college students abuse Adderall?

The exact number of college students who abuse Adderall is unclear. However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Monitoring the Future College Students and Young Adults Survey offers some key insights. In 2018, this Survey reported that Adderall use is more common among college students than in other demographic groups. Additionally, in 2018, 11% of college students admitted to using Adderall without a prescription, and as many as 20% of college students may abuse some form of a stimulant.

6. How many college kids die from Adderall in a year?

There are no definitive statistics for the number of college students who die or become seriously ill from Adderall use each year. However, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, Adderall produces about 1500 emergency room visits annually across the general population.

While this number may seem low, it is important to remember that long-term effects of Adderall dependency—even those short of death—are extremely serious. According to the American Addiction Centers, Adderall abuse can lead to a number of serious side effects, include hypertension, tachycardia (or an irregular heart rate), stroke, and heart attack. In some cases, Adderall use can certainly be fatal.

Ultimately, despite its perception—by some—as a relatively benign drug, Adderall can actually be highly dangerous when misused. And the presence of other drugs or alcohol can increase the likelihood of experiencing complications from Adderall abuse.

7. What are the signs of Adderall abuse in college students?

Any college student taking Adderall without a prescription—or misusing a prescribed dose—is potentially susceptible to abuse of the drug. According to American Addiction Centers, signs of Adderall abuse may include weight loss, irritability or excitability, memory loss, financial or relationship problems, and other issues. 

Adderall can…contribute to changes in mood, irritability, depression and anxiety, as well as psychiatric side effects such as hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia,” Sternlicht says.

Signs like these, and others—like persistently seeking out Adderall, taking Adderall without a prescription, or using higher and higher doses—are all signs of abuse.

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