Ritalin Generation Goes To College
Karen Barrow Healthology November 11, 2005
One graduate student at New
York University first tried it in the windowless office of
her college newspaper. She was on the third day of no sleep
and began snorting the white lines to get through the
exhaustion. Another student tried it after receiving the
pill as a birthday present from a friend. The gift helped
her zip through the last paper of the semester without any
A cup of coffee is no longer
the vice of choice for pulling an all-nighter. Even
over-the-counter caffeine pills don't cut it anymore.
Vitamin R, Bennies,
Jollies: slang names
for the drugs students are now using to help them outline
one more chapter or polish off that last paper, without
disrupting their social lives.
What are these drugs?
Medications meant to focus the over-active brain caused by
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While
intended for one use, drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are
being abused by students faced with increasing constraints
on their time.
Experts on student behavior
are just beginning to catch up with the latest college
"While much is known about
the college study use of alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and
other illicit drugs, we've not had a handle of the abuse of
prescription drugs," says Dr. Henry Wechsler, professor in
the Department of Society, Human Development and Health at
the Harvard School of Public Health.
The Need to Achieve?
The use of illicit substances on campus is no surprise. The
widespread use of alcohol and marijuana among college-aged
kids is well known and documented. And generally, students
use these substances to help them relax and forget about
their schoolwork. Those who take prescription stimulants,
however, have a different goal in mind. They want to be able
to sit down, focus and plow through their work.
Some students only resort to
these drugs as a last resort, using them get through the
worst part of the semester.
"I was writing my last paper
for school one semester and having trouble concentrating,"
said one female student from New York University, who, like
most of the students interviewed, wished to remain
anonymous. "I decided to just take it, and about an hour and
a half later, I was finished. It definitely worked."
Others use the drugs more
frequently to help them stay up through the night.
"If I have an exam to study
for, I can stay up the whole night and read all the chapters
I need to. The next day, I don't feel tired at all for the
exam, even though I haven't slept for over 24 hours," said
Lauren, an undergraduate from Syracuse University who says
she uses Adderall about four or five times a semester.
As more and more students
come clean about their use of stimulant drugs for
non-medical purposes, the picture of a typical user comes
White, Male and Well
According to a January 2005 survey of over 10,000 students
from 119 four-year colleges, the use of prescription drugs
for non-medical use has increased almost three percent in
the last year. Interestingly, the study showed that
prescription stimulants are most commonly abused in the
highly-competitive colleges of the northeastern United
States. Combine that with the fact that students with an
average of B or lower are more than twice as likely to take
these drugs, and one may quickly assume that abuse of ADHD
drugs is tied to the need to achieve.
But study author Christian
Teter, professor of pharmacy practice at Northeastern
University, says that the reasons students use prescription
stimulants may be more complex. "It could be that they are
turning to [these drugs] for the academic advantage," he
says. "But it may be they have better health care, so they
can get a prescription easier."
In fact, previous studies
have shown that members of fraternities and sororities—who
tend to come from a wealthier background than their
peers—are more likely to abuse both legal and illegal drugs
than their classmates. With greater access to illicit and
legal substances, it was not so surprising to Teter that his
recent study also found that prescription stimulants are
most commonly used by white, male fraternity members; women
in sororities also represent the highest number of female
So how do college kids get their hands on ADHD drugs? Many
of the students interviewed reported getting their doses of
Adderall—the stimulant of choice for its long-lasting
effects—from other students who have been diagnosed with
ADHD and have a prescription for the drug. Prices for one
pill can go as high as five dollars, but friends often just
pass them along for free.
With more than 1.5 million
adults and 2.5 children currently taking drugs for ADHD, the
supply on campus is only going to increase.
Some schools even report
that students are making appointments with campus medical
centers in hopes of scoring a personal supply.
Teter warns parents and
school officials that while these drugs may not be as
dangerous as other prescription drugs and illicit
stimulants, like Oxycontin or cocaine, they can be deadly to
someone with an unknown heart condition. More importantly,
use of these drugs is tied to other risky behavior across
the board. In fact, Teter's study showed that students who
use prescription stimulants are more likely to engage in
binge drinking, drunk driving and the use of illegal drugs.
But some students think that
even with all the warnings and risks, abuse of Ritalin and
Adderall is only going to rise.
"It's only natural that
people are going to take advantage of these things to try to
get a leg up," said one student.