Would you take a pill if it could raise your GPA?
Right around the time of midterms and finals, the libraries overflow with students chugging Red Bulls like water and cramming like there’s no tomorrow. Various students, queasy from the overdose of energy drinks and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, slip into bathroom stalls to make a discreet purchase. Within minutes, they are studying furiously as if training for an academic marathon.
ADHD medications, also commonly known as “study-buddy drugs,” have played a vital part in many students’ college experiences. We have learned to take the pill and get the grade without a second thought on how rapidly this phenomenon has grown.
From Adderall to Ritalin to Concerta, many college students with or without an Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) diagnosis have dealt with these medications one way or another. Some take it to focus, some snort it at parties — ADHD medications have become the guilt-free version of cocaine.
And while countless students take study-buddy drugs every time a test or paper rolls around, there is much about the drugs, the diagnoses, and the industry that remains unexplored territory.
Craig Reinarman, UCSC professor of sociology, puts the blame for America’s obsession with ADHD on three sets of shoulders — parents, the pharmaceutical companies and society itself. According to Reinarman, while ADHD is certainly a legitimate issue, the culture in which we live has inflated it to the point where children are diagnosed left and right, snacking on prescriptions like candy.
“ADHD is a fairly recent invention,” Reinarman said. “When I was a kid they’d call it ‘having ants in your pants.’ After thousands of years of history, all of a sudden there’s a new disease.”
From the fast-paced flow of information online to the explosion of commercial industries, Reinarman believes that our “rapid-fire culture” has created an overstimulated environment for people to live in, adapting to an instantly gratifying, media-hungry, brainwave-melting way of life.
“Society has become a mass-consumption culture, and we have more and more rapid stimuli bombarding you,” he said. “I’m surprised more people aren’t overwhelmed.”
While Reinarman critiques our society’s cacophonous tendencies, the fact remains that whether or not ADHD is a socially constructed phenomenon, the issue still hits home for many.
David Tylicki, learning disability project coordinator at the Disability Resource Center (DRC), describes three different types of ADHD — inattentive, hyperactive and combined. And while many people have the combined type, it is possible to only have the inattentive or hyperactive type.
“ADD was an older term,” Tylicki said. “Some people use the terms incorrectly and the meanings have changed over time.”
Tylicki also explained that 268 people are currently registered with the DRC — which of course does not include all of the undiagnosed students on campus.
Tylicki explained that there are a number of different medications for ADHD, and the diverse selection is a good thing in order to suit different people’s needs.
“I would actually be very upset if there was only one kind of medication,” Tylicki said.
And while Reinarman acknowledges the positive aspects of ADHD medication for those who need it, he said that pharmaceutical companies are the main reason why many have abused the medications.
“The pharmaceutical industry has invented a bunch of crap which they market,” Reinarman said. “‘What kinds of problems can we highlight to market the cure?’”
Though countless students rely on study-buddy drugs to focus, Tylicki explained that their effect on someone without ADHD is completely different from their effect on someone with the disorder.
“If you do not have ADHD or you take too much, it pushes you into the hyperactive range and so at that point it’s no different than taking amphetamines,” Tylicki said. “It can give you decreased appetite, sometimes it can make you jittery, it makes it hard to sleep. There can be some extreme side effects.”
And while ADHD medications are FDA-approved, there is still always a chance of overdose. According to a New York Daily News article published in August 2009, the number of calls to poison control centers about young people overdosing on ADHD medication increased 76 percent over the course of eight years. There were four deaths evaluated among the cases in the study.
With all of the spare pills floating around from student to student, at parties and libraries and dorms, Tylicki explained that there is clearly something off about the diagnoses.
“I’ve seen statistics that range anywhere from 4 to 12 percent of children in the country that are diagnosed, but then you get into adults, and it’s like 4 to 6 percent,” Tylicki said. “That’s just a clue to show you that there’s something wrong with the diagnoses here. People are either being overdiagnosed right now as children, or have been underdiagnosed previously.”
Richard Bagley* goes to the gym as often as he can. The UCSC fourth-year is well-built, with muscular arms and still no sign of the 20-something male’s common fate: the beer belly. Bagley has been on and off ADHD medications since elementary school, and in order for him to keep his energy up after his medication wears down, he heads to the gym for intensive exercise.
“I’ve run the gauntlet with ADD meds, from Concerta to Adderol to Focalin,” Bagley said. “I was switching up based on my needs.”
Bagley is one of the thousands of Americans diagnosed with ADHD as a child. On the other hand, Reinarman points out the problematic nature of diagnosing children early in their schooling.
“Kids in elementary schools are being measured on how well they ‘work,’ but they’re children,” he said. “And with No Child Left Behind forcing teachers to produce results based on tests — a kid 10 or 20 years ago would have been thought of as normal.”
Bagley, who is now prescribed both Vyvanse and Focalin, alternates between medications depending on whether he needs prolonged alertness or if he only needs to focus for a short period of time.
“Vyvanse is an extended release and lasts about five hours, and Focalin is the short-acting one,” Bagley said. “A lot of it is dictated by my school schedule.”
Reinarman explained that although many cases like Bagley’s require prescriptions, the parents are mainly at fault when it comes to overdiagnosing children at an early age.
“There is a huge number of middle-class parents who are perfectly ready to name their kids learning-disabled,” Reinarman said. “Millions of dollars have been spent on ads for anxious parents. They get the magic bullet, and it absolves them of any responsibility.”
According to a survey done by the Center for Disease Control, 4.5 million children between 5 and 17 years old have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2006, possibly pointing toward a pattern of unnecessary diagnoses.
And while Bagley — who saw a specialist before his diagnosis — feels significantly less attentive without medication in his system, he says he wouldn’t take the pills if he could help it.
“When I’m not on it, I’m definitely less engaged,” Bagley said. “[But] I don’t particularly like the way I feel when I’m on [my medication].”
Joy Midvale*, on the other hand, enjoys the sharp and smooth high she gets from the study-buddy stimulants. A UCSC fourth-year, Midvale is not diagnosed with ADHD but uses the drugs both academically and for pleasure. Like many other college students, she buys pills from her friends and classmates.
“For finals I was in a time-crunch and some people were selling [Adderall] in the library, so I bought a couple of pills,” Midvale said. “It was like all of those distractions that I usually have go away.”
Midvale recalled a recent night, when she was partying with some friends and decided to add some ADHD uppers to the mix of drugs and drink.
“I took Focalin recreationally and I snorted it,” Midvale said. “It just makes you feel super-sociable. You’re able to think of things quickly, and it gives you a big energy boost so you can party longer and harder. … It was kind of like cocaine, but cheaper.”
Every midterm and finals week, Paul Gringott’s* phone lights up with text messages asking for the best time to pick up some “addy” for a late-night study session. A UCSC fourth-year, Gringott is one of the many students who deal ADHD medication in library bathrooms during a time when students’ highs are at an all-time low.
At most universities, ADHD pill hookups run rampant throughout student life, leaving it almost impossible to identify a study-buddy drug dealer because they could virtually be anyone, with or without a prescription.
“That’s how it happens — someone has a prescription and then they give it to you,” Gringott said. “I only dealt when people had finals. You have to think of the demand.”
Gringott, a quiet yet sociable guy who lives his life like any other student, does not consider himself a “drug dealer,” but feels that he is only safely catering to people’s needs. Their need for speed, that is.
Gringott took ADHD drugs for the first time in his sophomore year to stay up writing a paper, and began selling pills sometime in his junior year. He explained the common price range per pill, which varies by dosage.
“For milligram dosage it starts at about $3 and goes to about $16,” Gringott said. “There’s 2, 5, and then up to however much dosage you really need. I’ve seen 60, but I’ve never taken 60.”
He also explained that although many students prefer long-lasting Adderall or Focacin, the fast-hitting, short-lasting pills are higher in demand during peak study hours.
“Time-release pills are more expensive,” Gringott said. “The small pills are what people want because they work right away.”
Shireen Nawawi, a UCSC student and pharmacy technician at the Health Center, explained that along with depression and anxiety medication and birth control, ADHD medications are among the top prescriptions dispensed at the Health Center. However, Nawawi stated that in order to receive a prescription, one must first be evaluated and diagnosed by a psychiatrist.
“You have to be evaluated by a psych doctor and diagnosed, and then given a prescription,” Nawawi said. “Out of all of the ADD medications, Adderall is the most popular and then Concerta is the second one.”
Nawawi explained that the generic name for Adderall is dextroamphetamine salt, and that it is basically an amphetamine. Concerta is the brand name for time-released Ritalin, which is chemically known as methylphenidate. While she knows of students who use study-buddy pills every now and then, she sees no real issues manifesting.
“I hear of a lot of people using it, but I don’t really think it’s a problem,” Nawawi said. “Everybody has difficulty to an extent in paying attention.”
So who is to blame for the overdiagnosis and often unnecessary dependence on the drug? Whether we choose to blame parents, pharmaceutical companies or society in general, it all comes down to the fact that as long as there is ADHD, there will be always be Ritalin, Adderall, and other pills to alleviate the distracted and the hyperactive.
“Some people need it, other people abuse it. I don’t really judge them,” Gringott said. “I try not to.”
* Names have been changed.