Adderall prescriptions among 18- to 24-year-olds have remained constant since 2014, but the amount of young people misusing Adderall as a study aid is skyrocketing — particularly among college students crumbling under pressure to excel on exams.   

Illustration by Anna León

Adderall is used to combat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The prescription stimulant drug cannot increase a person’s cognitive ability but helps increase focus. Use in universities such as UC Santa Cruz spikes around midterms and final exams, said Dr. David Lo, director of psychiatry for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

Like 60 percent of college students nationwide, UCSC third-year business management and economics major Chris Kim* turns to Adderall throughout the academic year because he believes it enhances his focus.

“I tell myself I can do it and realistically speaking I can,” Kim said, “but it puts so much mental and emotional strain on me that I feel like I need to do Adderall to get it going.”

Kim, who’s never been prescribed Adderall or diagnosed with ADHD, first used Adderall in his junior year of high school. At the time, Kim was depressed and struggling in school, unable to focus in class and worrying how it would affect his college acceptances. After using Adderall for a number of weeks and passing all of his classes with A’s, Kim stopped. He began to see negative effects from prolonged use such as depression and insomnia.

ADHD is a legitimate disorder, but it’s often misdiagnosed when attention deficit is actually a symptom of different issues, Dr. David Lo said. All psychiatric disorders cause some loss of focus, he said, and college students are particularly vulnerable to the onset of a multitude of disorders.

“What we try to do [as psychiatrists] is figure out what else could be causing the inattention,” Lo said. “Is it truly genetic ADHD disorder or is it your anxiety, your depression, your trauma? And using adderall to treat those disorders may or may not be useful.”

In 2017, 60 percent of college students reported anxiety that hindered their performance, and 31 percent experienced at least one depressive episode, according to the National College Health Association.

Adderall use among college students, with or without a prescription, comes with powerful effects. Some students might be able to stay up all night studying but run the risk of developing patterns of insomnia, Lo said. While some could be more focused, anxiety can be heightened by prescription misuse.

Lo recognizes that it does help students focus on their work, but said people misusing prescriptions need to be aware of a possible biological triggering of mental health issues. In the long term they need to evaluate the underlying reasons for their focusing issues.

Stress in college and throughout life is an unavoidable reality. Meg Kobe, director of the Student Health Outreach Program (SHOP), said that stress can be managed through outlets and taking care of the mind and the body. She also said prescription misuse is not the answer and is dangerous because each person has unique mental and physical needs.

“If you’re taking someone else’s script, a doctor hasn’t examined you and chosen a drug and dose for your specific medical needs and medical history,” Kobe said in an email. “Drugs affect everyone differently. It’s a very real possibility that a drug that works for your friend, or whomever gave it to you, can trigger an adverse or potentially very dangerous reaction in you.”

Kobe recommends students practice healthy sleep routines and other healthy habits like eating well and exercising, as well as taking advantage of resources such as SHOP, CAPS and other centers across campus. This is particularly important during exam season, when self-care becomes harder to prioritize and self-medication becomes a cultural norm.

Chris Kim’s mental health battle and study habits are two of many reasons students turn to Adderall.  In recent years, students have used Adderall as a party drug, study aid, a way to catch up from procrastination and manage depression or anxiety. These misuses have brought people to emergency rooms across the nation, according to a John Hopkins University study.

Kim openly talks about his use but he never advises his friends to use Adderall. He also recognizes that while it may be useful to him, his misuse is not essential to his learning and daily function like it could be to someone with ADHD.   

“For [people prescribed Adderall] it is a necessity,” Kim said, “and for me it is not necessarily a necessity but it is something that helps.”

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.