Society clearly has a strong opinion about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, but we currently have a new problem emerging: performance-enhancing drugs in academics, something dubbed ‘academic doping.’ The most common drugs that students abuse include Adderall and Ritalin, which are prescribed for people with ADD and ADHD.
According to a recent poll that will be presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies’ annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada, nearly one in five students at an Ivy League University admitted to using ADHD drugs to improve their school performance. Lead researcher, Andrew Adesman, refused to name the school that the poll took place to protect its image and students. However, he is confident that the same is true across all US colleges and universities.
If this isn’t a one-school phenomenon, and it’s true that students from across the country are using ADHD drugs to improve their academic performance, then we have a new and very serious problem on our hands as a society. It’s not just the act of taking drugs to improve school performance, but attitudes toward it.
In the poll, one-third of students did not feel that taking drugs for academic enhancement was a form of cheating. Of the 18 percent who admitted to taking ADHD meds to improve academic performance, most did so before writing a paper or studying for a test, 69 percent and 27 percent, respectively. The study included a written survey that was distributed to 616 sophomores, juniors and seniors who were not known to have ADHD.
Do ADHD Drugs Really Impact School Performance?
There is some speculation surrounding how much ADHD drugs improve school performance, but the goal of these medications is to improve concentration and focus. For a maxed out student who has to stay up all night writing an essay or studying for an exam, a drug that allows them to focus and retain information sounds like a viable solution.
For students who don’t have ADHD, the drugs can help them tune in to material for up to an hour. The medications make them more alert, focused and able to concentrate, when under normal conditions, they would be distracted in about 20 to 30 minutes. Whether this boost during study time actually improves test scores isn’t clear.
In fact, several studies have reported that students who misuse ADHD medications have lower grades and more drug and alcohol problems compared to their peers. Not to mention, there are the traditional symptoms that go along with addiction, such as social withdrawal, insomnia and agitation. These effects will negatively impact school performance in the long run.
Still, data from the poll showed that students who were involved in extracurricular activities and social commitments were more likely to use stimulants. Of those students who admitted to using drugs to boost performance, 24 percent had used the stimulants eight times or more. Since we know from previous studies that people who misuse prescription medications are likely to mix these stimulants with other drugs and alcohol and are more at risk for addiction, it’s frightening to think about the students who may be going down a dark path, even though they are ideal students at the moment.
More ADHD Diagnoses Means More ADHD Drugs
Since academic doping is a relatively new occurrence, it’s difficult to say exactly how the use of drugs like Ritalin and Adderall will affect our youth. The trouble is that many college students have the mentality that they need to do anything to succeed, whether that’s in school, sports, social activities or all of the above. While this mentality can be healthy, it can also place an enormous amount of pressure on a young person and drive them to using stimulants that are more readily available and accepted than ever before.
Between the years of 2003 to 2011, there has been a 42 percent increase in ADHD diagnoses, and this number continues to increase. With the number of people who have been prescribed the drug, it’s more readily available. College campuses see a rise in the drugs during midterm and exam weeks, and one anonymous dealer told The Campus Companion that they can make up to $5,000 in one semester.
Perhaps what makes stories of academic doping so mind boggling is that it goes beyond our traditional perceptions of what drug addiction is. We don’t normally think of the straight-A college student involved in sports as being at risk for addiction. While not the typical profile, the high pressures that college places on young people coupled with the widespread availability of stimulants is enough to start an addiction.
Bottom line: People who use stimulants that do not need them are setting themselves up for a variety of safety concerns. Just as there are healthy ways to deal with stress, there are healthy ways to deal with the demands of school and extracurricular activities. There should never be a need to use drugs in order to stay awake or increase attention and focus. If you or someone you know is falling into this cycle, talk to a professional counselor or therapist immediately.