On the night before her chemistry exam, Jane* popped a 20 milligram Adderall.
She said the medication, obtained illegally from a friend for $5, helps her combat drowsiness so she can pull all-nighters in order to complete last-minute assignments or cram for exams.
Seven million Americans over the age of 12 took prescription drugs for non-medical reasons in 2010, trailing only marijuana in illicit drug use popularity, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Jane said she only takes her “study pills” when “academically necessary,” so she may not recognize the potential negative side effects both on her health and on her criminal record.
Medical research has found that abuse of prescription stimulants can cause elevated blood pressure, anxiety, depression, heart irregularities, acute exhaustion or even psychosis during withdrawal.
The most common side effects are insomnia, headache, dry mouth, anxiety, agitation and stomach upset, according to the UMKC Drug Information Center, which is part of the School of Pharmacy.
While these medications are meant to calm people diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), those who are not prescribed the pills may experience an acute sense of focus and alertness they claim can help them buckle down on late-night study sessions.
Prescription stimulants used to treat these disorders, like Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin and Focalin, are listed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as Class 2 controlled substances—as are cocaine and morphine—because of their addictive qualities.
Possession of Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin or Focalin without a lawful prescription could mean up to seven years in prison and a $5,000 fine, but students who take prescription drugs may not realize that simply giving or selling any of these medications to people without a prescription can lead to felony charges.
Another student who asked to remain anonymous also takes ADHD medication to help study.
“I buy it or get it for free from friends who are prescribed the medication,” the student said. “I would say I take it an average of three times per week. I do feel that I need it to perform better in school and work.”
Of the 408 UMKC students surveyed in the Missouri College Health Behavior Survey (MCHBS), 27 said they had used prescription stimulants in the past year.
Of the 27 UMKC students, the majority said this occurs one to six times per year. This may suggest that stimulant use only occurs at key times throughout the year, such as midterms and finals weeks.
Dr. Dalenette Voigt-Catlin, coordinator of the UMKC Alcohol and Drug Prevention Program, said there are safer alternatives to help study for extended periods of time.
Voigt-Catlin recommended studying in short intervals, about 30 minutes, and then doing something else before coming back to the work.
“We learn through associations and through repetition,” she said. “And that feels better to people, because what they don’t like is being strapped down to dredge through everything.”
Voigt-Catlin also suggested a rewards system for completing necessary work, and she stressed self-care as key.
“You can’t study if you don’t feel good,” she said. “The self-care piece is critical – remembering to eat well, sleep well and get exercise, especially during midterms and finals. That’s better than taking a pill.”
While the immediate effects of these drugs may seem to have positive effects such as increased focus and better grades, the long-term effects on one’s health are a subject of debate among medical experts.
“Little is known about the long-term effects of abuse of stimulants among the young,” said Alan Schwarz in a June New York Times article about prescription stimulants.
Schwarz interviewed approximately 40 students, parents and school officials.
“Asked if the improper use of stimulants was cheating, students were split,” he said. “Some considered that the extra studying hours and the heightened focus during exams amount to an unfair advantage. Many countered that the drugs ‘don’t give you the answers’ and defended their use as a personal choice for test preparation, akin to tutoring.”
Voigt-Catlin said the campus has a strategic plan surrounding alcohol and drug prevention, and addressing the issue of nonmedical prescription drug use is part of that plan.
“We have a committee that looks across the whole campus, working on strategies to help educate students and to help provide experiences and activities to help people make wiser choices,” she said. “The campus also tries to do things around midterms and finals.”
Voigt-Catlin is also involved with the MindBody Connection in the Student Success Center, which she said will also host activities around finals week to help students avoid and/or deal with stress.
Editor’s note: Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.