When sophomore Josh Margolis sits down to study for a test, he said he sometimes can’t get his thoughts under control. They race through his brain. He can’t keep track of what he’s trying to focus on.
He often takes a dose of Ritalin. Sometimes, his friends ask him to share it.
“The first time it happened was towards the end of my freshman year, near finals,” Margolis said. “It’s mostly my friends, and they’ve always asked for some before tests since they found out I had a prescription.”
Margolis has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and said taking Ritalin as it was prescribed to him is sometimes the only way he can focus. But he said he doesn’t think his friends know that it’s not going to work the same way for them.
As midterms, finals and other big tests approach, IUPD detective David Hannum said he starts noticing more cases of students misusing stimulants prescribed to treat ADHD. Adderall, another ADHD drug, is the most misused prescription drug on Indiana college campuses, with 7.2 percent of students reporting misuse, according to the 2015 Indiana College Substance Use Survey.
“I can sit down in the Wright dining hall and hear people next to me talking about it out in the open,” Hannum said. “You can easily buy Adderall any day of the week.”
Misuse of ADHD drugs has been at a high level for years, Hannum said. And unlike alcohol or marijuana, the pills’ small size and lack of odor makes it harder for IUPD to catch.
“In one case, there was a student who advertised that he was selling Adderall on OneStart,” Hannum said. “People do not even try to disguise it sometimes.”
Students use these drug for reasons they don’t consider recreational, which is why the rates of misuse are so high, OASIS director Jackie Daniels said. She said the students she sees usually started using the drug in response to intense academic pressure.
Some students say the costs of college make them feel like they need to perform well, Daniels said. She said students in more competitive career tracks or in programs that take limited numbers of students are more likely to arrive at OASIS for a problem with Adderall misuse.
“It’s not usually students looking to have a good time,” Daniels said. “It’s students who feel they aren’t prepared for the workload of college. They just feel like they’re in over their heads.”
But there is no research that supports the idea that using prescription stimulants helps with focus or academic performance, Daniels said. According to studies from the Coalition to Prevent ADHD Medication Misuse, students using ADHD medications illegally to study often earn lower grades than students who don’t, said David Arnold, a national representative to CPAMM. Students put themselves at legal risk for no guarantee of academic benefit.
And the disciplinary risks are high.
Selling Adderall is a level six felony, which can carry a fine of up to $10,000 and a sentence of up to two and a half years in prison, Hannum said.
In addition, misusing prescription drugs to improve performance in class or on a test is considered cheating, Daniels said. According to the IU Student Code of Conduct, cheating can result in consequences ranging from a failing grade on an assignment to expulsion from IU.
“To the student code of conduct, using a drug is the same as writing notes on your hand to refer to during a test,” Daniels said. “It’s an issue of integrity. Students are trying to give themselves an unfair advantage.”
But all Adderall use can’t be criminalized, because many students on campus have ADHD. These students need medications like Adderall and Ritalin to focus at all, Daniels said.
“It really does a disservice to students who have ADHD,” Arnold said. “It trivializes a very real disease.”
Margolis was diagnosed with ADHD in middle school, and was given the as-needed Ritalin prescription last year. The pills are 10 milligrams each and work as a fast-release.
“I know people think they need it, but it’s different than actually having ADHD,” Margolis said. “I get really hyped up and anxious and physically can’t do anything about it. That’s what the drug is supposed to fix. I’m not sure people really know what they’re getting into when they ask for it.”
Beyond disciplinary action, students face serious health dangers when they take stimulants they shouldn’t, CAPS Director Nancy Stockton said.
“When you take these drugs regularly and it’s not something you need, it can be anxiety provoking, it causes sleep problems, it can create heart arrhythmias,” Stockton said. “And then it becomes addicting, and you’re stuck with something that is doing you so much harm instead of actually helping you.”
CAPS and the IU Health Center will not refill prescriptions for ADHD medication, Stockton said. They require students to get the prescription filled through the provider that originally prescribed it. Students who come to the health center thinking they might have attention deficit disorder or ADHD are put through an intense screening process.
Daniels and Stockton both said they wish students would look at why they’re feeling overwhelmed, rather than trying to solve the problem quickly.
“These are usually students who feel trapped and stressed,” Stockton said. “It’s not hard to understand why they’d want to take something to just get them through the next assignment, but they need to look at the bigger picture.”
Screenings for students who feel they might have ADHD are available, and students struggling with stress over their workload can seek help through CAPS, Stockton said. Daniels encourages students with ADHD to contact IU’s disability support services.
Daniels said it is more important for students to learn how to efficiently manage their work so they can keep their heads above the water. She said there are smart students out there who just haven’t learned how to plan ahead or study efficiently.
“Students get so far in that they can’t see that using Adderall isn’t working,” Daniels said. “They think it helps. But is it worth the crash? Is it worth putting yourself through this dangerous psychological routine every time you have a test? Or is it maybe worth something that will last longer and work better?”