Press "Enter" to skip to content

Students battle between productivity and addiction

Pills like Adderall — an amphetamine-based medication used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)— are well known on college campuses across the nation for their ability to boost energy and heighten focus. Mills students say the drug is less visible here, but there is a consensus that such pills have a presence, even if it’s under the radar.

AdderallrxThe New York Times published an article detailing a young college graduate’s descent into Adderall addiction and his eventual suicide. The article cites a study that followed the rise of monthly prescriptions for ADHD among Americans ages 20 to 39: such prescriptions rose two and a half times between 2007 and 2011, an increase which many experts attribute to young college graduates (recently freed from parental oversight) obtaining prescriptions, the Times said. Between 8 and 35 percent of college students take stimulant pills to enhance their academic performance, according to studies cited by the article.

In an anonymous survey created for this article, which was posted on the Mills Facebook page and distributed in the Student News bulletin, half of the 40 respondents said they had “never” used Adderall or a similar stimulant for school, while a third said they “often” used such medications. While only 3 percent of the respondents said that Adderall abuse is a problem at Mills, 53 percent said that it may be a problem.

“I would definitely say it’s a problem, not all semester long but during finals,” said O. Stevens, a second-year student in the 4 + 1 Masters program. Stevens said she does not use Adderall, but is aware of its presence on campus. She says she has been approached by people seeking stimulant pills. “Finals week is very intense,” she said, and “people that you would never expect definitely use [stimulant pills].” Stevens said that during an in-class English exam last year, she noticed several students twitching, bouncing their feet, and struggling to concentrate — a result, she believed, of lack of sleep from their using stimulants to cram.

DeeAnn Williams, a second-year biopsychology major, expressed similar concerns about students who use stimulants (pills as well as energy drinks that contain taurine) to keep from sleeping and to maximize their study time.

Williams said she has not heard much talk of stimulant pill abuse at Mills, but said that she did not think that abuse of stimulants is uncommon in college, and that as a non-traditional-aged student she might not be tuned in to what younger students are doing.

In her previous college, Williams said she encountered students who used pills like Adderall as a study aid. Williams said the students she knew from her previous college who abused Adderall were doing themselves more harm then good.

“They feel like they need to constantly be learning, but sleep is vital — the body needs to have its homeostatic balance,” Williams said.

“Stimulants seem attractive and seem great but there are long-term consequences,” she said.

Wendy Montero, a third-year undergraduate English major, said she was attracted to the stimulant pill Ritalin after friends at UCLA and UC Berkeley praised the medication. Montero acknowledged that there were risks associated with addiction to medications like Ritalin and Adderall, but said she still liked using stimulant pills.

Montero said she couldn’t afford to buy Ritalin, which typically sells for $5 or $10 a pill, but that for a while, the person she was dating provided her with the pills. She used Ritalin to get through all-nighters and to manage the fall out procrastination.

“I definitely wrote some of my best papers [while] on it,” she said. “It comes out kind of like a masterpiece, where at the end you got the idea you were searching for.”

Other students share Montero’s experience. In the anonymous survey of Mills students, 22 percent of those who responded said they use stimulant pills like Ritalin and Adderall to manage their workloads.

Montero said her friends at Mills don’t use Adderall, either because they can’t afford it or because they’re trying to stop taking other prescriptions and don’t want to add more substances. Or because they consider it cheating.

Montero acknowledged that there’s a fine line between using the medication to enhance your ability and relying on it to the extent that it hinders you. “It questions your intelligence: Was that you or was that the Adderall or the Ritalin? It definitely takes away people’s credibility to an extent,” she said.

“It’s not that they’re in the wrong it’s just that they feel ashamed about it to an extent.” Montero said.

Still, many students seek out the drug. “Just last week, I heard people in Founders asking each other for Adderall,” one student, who spoke anonymously, said. Another anonymous student said she had seen a friend on Facebook asking for Adderall in a status update — and the friend had received a response: I’ve got some; I’ve got your back.

One anonymous biopsychology student said, “The kids in the science department — I don’t know what they’re on but they don’t ever sleep. My suspicions are there.”

Other students were less certain of such stimulant use by their classmates. Janel Park, an education major, said she hasn’t seen Adderall at Mills, but that she felt that Mills is an exception.

“On every other campus it’s huge,” Park said.

Dr. Lisa Urry, a professor in the biology department, said she hasn’t seen signs that students in her classes are using Adderall to manage their work — “But,” she added, “I don’t think along those lines.”

While Urry has heard reports of rampant Adderall use in East Coast Ivy League schools, at Mills, she said, she hasn’t seen much evidence of students abusing such medication.

“Science students work their tails off,” she said, but did not attribute their efforts to Adderall use.

“There may be a few outliers,” Urry said.

Dr. Helen Walter, a professor in the biology department (and head of the Center for Academic Excellence) echoed Urry’s take on the issue.

“We don’t really see [Adderall abuse]. We’re not really on the watch for it.” Walter said.

Walter said that while she is pretty sure stimulant pills are being used on campus, it’s hard to differentiate between symptoms of stimulant abuse and other signs of stress, nerves, lack of sleep, or heavy caffeine consumption.

Like many people on campus, Walter noted that she sees plenty of energy drinks and coffee being consumed, but that stimulant pills are less obvious.

“It’s a tricky thing: who is abusing it — using the drug for a potentially incorrect purpose — and who is not,” she said.

Several students who said they have been diagnosed with attention disorders said that while they have prescriptions to Adderall, they don’t take the pills regularly. Maren Leith, a first-year psychology student, said she was diagnosed with ADHD in her freshman year of high school, but didn’t start taking the medication until her sophomore year.

“Medication kind of freaks me out,” Leith said. She said she was afraid of becoming addicted but eventually started taking a low dose of Adderall under pressure from her mother, because, she acknowledged, her grades were “horrible.”

Leith’s grades improved, but she said she is not sure if that is due to the Adderall or because she has matured since her diagnosis.

Now, at Mills, she said she only takes Adderall when she feels she needs it, such as for a project or during finals.

She uses physical activity to help manage her ADHD (a strategy that nearly 47 percent of students in the anonymous survey also said they employed), and says she hasn’t had issues with other students approaching her for Adderall — she says her friends don’t use the drug to study.

Zoe Dell, a first-year student who lives in the same hall as Leith, said that she hasn’t seen people abusing Adderall at Mills.

“It’s not prevalent on campus,” she said, but added, “If I was using it I might know of it.”

Gabriella Tempestoso, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Support Services at Mills said that when students seek help from her office in managing their workloads, she “typically refer[s] students to the CAE,” which hosts a variety of workshops on time management and study skills.

But many students continue to use Adderall as their time management tool. One fourth-year student majoring in English uses Adderall during crunch time. “I get so much accomplished,” the student said. “I feel like I could do this all the time.”

In the longer run, however, the student, who asked that her name not be used, said that stimulants like Adderall disrupt her sleep schedule too much to use on a regular basis.

“I have to keep in the back of my mind that it’s just for this week,” she said.

“I can totally see how people do get addicted to it. It’s just like any other drug, and you have to have a plan and reach out if you feel it becoming a problem.”