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Not just a pick-me-upper: Adderall and the struggles of student substance use

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Courtesy of Creative Commons/THE REVIEW
“There’s not really a responsible way to misuse Adderall,” Meisje Scales says.

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Short deadlines. Long nights. High stress levels.

This recipe is one that is familiar to many college students, especially during finals season, who face immense pressure in their academic lives. Mounting tension and workloads can lead students to a dead end, crippled with anxiety over completing the tasks at hand and getting increasingly desperate to fulfill their obligations. In certain cases, resorting to a substance can seem like the only answer.

For some students, Adderall is the perceived solution. It is a prescription drug in the amphetamine family that acts as a stimulant of the central nervous system. In conception, it’s designed to mitigate symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

Amy B. Richardson, the assistant director of Substance Use Intervention within Student Wellness & Health Promotion uses an analogy to best describe how Adderall functions in terms of how it assists people who experience ADD or ADHD in connecting their thought processes.

“It’s a lot like having a car and you’re driving over a jump,” Richardson says. “The Adderall helps the car make it over the jump and keep going and finish that fluid thought so you don’t get scattered or distracted. So it really just helps continue those thought processes. If I don’t have ADD then I already have that bridge and it just makes me go a little faster.”

Meisje J. Scales, a research associate & certified prevention specialist at the University of Delaware Center for Drug and Health Studies, recognizes that misinformation leads non-prescribed users to believe that Adderall is a performance-enhancer that will improve study habits and/or impact overall intelligence.

“There is a misconception that Adderall or drugs in that same category make you smarter or somehow make it so that you can get better grades,” Scales says. “It stimulates the central nervous system, which allows, in some cases, folks to focus more and it does allow for improved attention. But there are some drawbacks in that, even for people who have ADHD, it’s not effective 100% of the time.”

Richardson agrees that this belief is rooted in a lack of understanding of users who take Adderall non-prescribed.

“Students who don’t have ADD, even though Adderall may help them feel that they focus more, actually don’t do better academically,” Richardson says. “There’s no research to show that they’re performing at higher rates.”

For students who try Adderall or other stimulants for these aforementioned purposes, they should be aware of the common side effects that include loss of appetite, headaches, insomnia and nervousness. They should also be aware of its classification as a highly addictive substance.

“There’s not really a way to responsibly misuse Adderall,” Scales says. It’s a Schedule II substance.”

Schedule II substances are classified as such for their high potential for abuse, often leading to user dependency.

Taking a stimulant as a performance-enhancement, while potentially beneficial in the short term, doesn’t provide long term solutions.

“I think a lot of times we are trying to make good decisions and we are trying to take good care of ourselves personally and academically and it can feel like a really good idea to take Adderall so I can focus and study and whatnot and alleviate my discomfort,” Richardson says. “It’s uncomfortable either way, either I have to study and manage my time or I take this drug and feel physical discomfort afterwards. It’s important to weigh those out.”

Scales offers that the conversation should be pushed further, considering what other factors brought the individual to use the substance in the first place before discussing treatment.

“When we talk about prescription misuse, usually that thing does not exist by itself in a vacuum meaning, just because I stop taking Adderall doesn’t mean that my needs are being met,” Scales says. “Why did I start taking it in the first place? What is the pressure there?”

For students who may be struggling, Student Wellness and Health promotion offers a multitude of services for support including peer recovery communities and drop-in counseling, as well as off-campus referrals.

“Here we do individual supportive counseling, so if students are concerned about their use then they can come in and meet with a counselor who specializes in drug and alcohol use,” Richardson says. “[This counselor] can help them look at where they are, where they want to be, and what changes they might need to make.”

This process involves instilling individuals with resilience and coping skills to avoid the need to turn to a substance for relief.

Scales believes in the power of looking beyond the substance or the classification of a person as a substance user in advocating for genuine change in societal perceptions of addictions and stigmas, including on campuses like this one.

“When we talk about treatment, when we talk about prevention, we cannot focus on a particular substance,” Scales says. “We have to focus on the disorder itself, and even better than that, focusing on the whole person.”

In taking a more humanistic and compassionate approach, individuals who struggle, especially those who don’t readily admit to struggling, can feel that help is more accessible. This can benefit college students in particular who are participants in an environment that is not easily conducive to sobriety and generates the pressures that often bring them to stimulants in the first place.

Scales asks that those involved in addiction counseling show compassion and support towards students to redefine conversations surrounding substance use in general.

“What are the things that we can do to wrap service, to wrap our arms, to wrap community around people who feel that that’s the choice they need to make and have made?” Scales says.

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