Some college students stay up late on caffeine during finals, while others keep snacking to keep themselves going throughout the night. However, there is a portion of college students who rely on “study drugs,” i.e. ,prescribed medication, to stay focused enough to study throughout the night.

The term “study drugs” refers to prescription drugs used to increase concentration and stamina for the purpose of studying, focusing, or cramming information for an all-nighter. Between club meetings, football practices, attending workshops and landing that excellent co-op, who has the time to study anymore, right? This is why those “study drugs” are becoming increasingly popular.

Alan DeSantis, a professor and researcher at the University of Kentucky, has tracked study drug use there. “It’s abused more than marijuana and easier to get,” he says.

DeSantis’ research found that 30% of students at the university have illegally used a stimulant, like the ADHD drugs Adderall or Ritalin. The numbers increase with upperclassmen. The study found half of all juniors and seniors having used the drugs, and 80% of upperclassmen in fraternities and sororities have taken them.

But how do they work? These medications are used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which affect attention span, impulse control, self-discipline, and hyperactivity in the case of ADHD.

Prescription stimulants used to treat ADD and ADHD include Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, and Focalin. Using or buying these medications without a prescription is illegal. An article in INQUISITR describes some of the other popular study drugs, which include Vyvanse, Modafinil, Caffeine Pills, etc. Her Campus shares a story about a student to demonstrate that taking these drugs in college is a growing problem for students. Amanda has turned to Adderall to focus better and for a longer period of time without getting distracted. “With Adderall, I don’t want to run around,” she says in the article. “I just want to focus on the task that is in front of me.”

According to the University Health Services Department at the University of Texas in Austin, 87 percent of students reported saying they don’t use any drugs to study but they do notice it as a growing problem on campuses. The department also reported that around 50 percent of students who have prescriptions for ADHD medication have been pressured by other students to give them out. By a student’s sophomore year in college, about half of their classmates would have been offered the opportunity to abuse a prescribed drug (Arria, 2008). According to the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of American households consume prescription drugs on a regular basis. Only 4% of Americans have ever purchased prescription drugs on the Internet.

A survey of 2,200 American adults conducted by Pew yielded with just 93 people who had purchased prescription drugs online. Americans living in higher-income households ($50,000+ annually) and Internet users with six or more years of online experience are more likely to have made such a purchase.


Source: Center on Young Adult Health and Development

In addition to being a federal crime for anyone who owns such drugs without a prescription, abuse of these drugs can have serious and long-term side effects. The University of Texas’ website details some of the side effects, which include extreme anxiety, depression, dependency, nervous breakdowns, sleep disorders, and even psychosis (a mental disorder that causes a loss of grip with reality). Less serious symptoms include: jitters, stomach problems, headaches, nervousness and a decrease in appetite. Students justify taking these drugs as a means to work harder, instead of thinking twice about the long-term effects, because apparently they’re not taking it to get high; they’re taking it to get even smarter. Since such drugs are ultimately being used for a positive outcome — such as getting better grades and not for getting high at a party — some students may think it’s not as bad as any other street drugs.

Dr. Raymond Kotwicki, medical director at the Skyland Trail mental health treatment facility and assistant professor in the Department at Emory University’s school of medicine, found that students who use enhancing stimulants thought of them to be “slightly more dangerous than the soft drink Mountain Dew and nowhere near as dangerous as drinking beer and smoking.”

The problem is that there is not enough education out there on college campuses regarding “study drugs” compared to abuse for alcohol or smoking. Though students are aware that taking the drugs without a prescription is illegal, many shrug it off as a technicality and ignore the fact that they could face prosecution if caught. It’s thought of as socially acceptable, if not normal, to use as long as it’s for academic achievement. The surprising fact, pointed out by USA Today College, is that many of these students are not “junkies” who are consuming the drugs to get high. They are well-educated and well-rounded students who can function perfectly without these drugs. It’s easy to spot someone battling a drug addiction from extreme drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, due to their physical and mental being. Part of the problem regarding performance-enhancing stimulants is that the effects are less noticeable because most people function normally on it. Until they are negatively affected by later side effects, or any other medical conditions, it’s almost impossible to figure out who’s abusing such “study drugs.”

So, why are they still using it? Dr. Bill Ritchey, executive director of health and counseling at Christopher Newport University, believes finals week is a “perfect storm of stress” that leads to the increase in the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs.

“I think we have come to a place in our culture where students will do anything to get the grade. Where students get in the mindset ‘I need to get to the end, I need to pass this, I need this to get through this week,’ and these drugs provide a means to that end,” says Dr. Ritchey in an interview with USA Today.