Rising stimulant abuse a health risk for students

The Counseling and Mental Health Services is in the fourth floor in Arjona. They provide services in a safe and welcoming environment. (Charlotte Lao/The Daily Campus)

Abuse of study drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall and other prescription stimulants has been increasing, and can prove to have crippling effects on a student’s health when abused, according to Jonathan Beazley, who works for Counseling and Mental Health Services at the University of Connecticut.

“(Stimulant use) has been on the rise in the greater community for some time, ever since Adderall was made available in 1996 for ADHD,” Beazley, an alcohol & drug interventionist at CMHS, said. “Once the diagnosis of ADHD was found to be in young adults, and older adults as well, they too were often put on Ritalin and Adderall at that time.”

Stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall, which are known as amphetamines, are typically prescribed to those with attention deficit disorders in order to help them focus and function in society. However, stimulants’ “focusing” abilities can make them tempting for abuse as a performance enhancer for students as a study drug, Beazley said.

The rise of ADHD diagnoses contributed to the increase in stimulant drug prescriptions, Beazley said, which led to the drug’s prevalence on college campuses.

“We have a larger number of students who are prescribed (stimulants), and it started being used as a study aid by those who were not prescribed it for ADHD,” Beazley said.

Almost two-thirds of college students have been offered prescription stimulants at some point in their undergraduate career, according to a study completed in 2012 by the Journal of American College Health. One third of college students used stimulants as a study aid by their fourth year

Dr. Charles White, head of the Department of Pharmacy Practice at UConn, weighed in his expertise on the role of stimulants as a prescription drugs, and the effects of its abuse.

“The risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart attacks and arrhythmias are increased as is the risk of having a panic attack,” White said.

It is possible to overdose on stimulants, Beazley said, especially if the drug is snorted, smoked or injected, or used in conjunction with other drugs such as alcohol. This puts strain on the cardiovascular and respiratory system, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, and putting the user at risk for stroke, hyperthermia (overheating) and seizures, Beazley said.

Taking drugs without the advice of a doctor or pharmacist can have negative effects as well, White said, since there may be unknown drug interactions at work. Like any drug, the stimulant effect of Adderall and Ritalin run the risk of being highly addictive, White said, much like a dependence on MDMA, bath salts and other stimulants.

“After people abuse a stimulant and the effects wear off, it causes depressant effect,” White said. “Stimulants borrow the joy from tomorrow and the next day and gives it to you now. That is why depression and suicide rates are higher when you come off it, and why some people will try to remedicate to prevent it from happening, setting up a cycle of abuse.”

Amphetamines such as Ritalin and Adderall are actually very close in chemical structure, Beazley said, to a different illegal substance: methamphetamine.

The addictive quality of stimulants lie in their ability to stimulate the neurotransmitter dopamine, Beazley said, which acts as the “motivation” chemical for the brain. People with ADHD need a higher level of dopamine stimulation to focus and remember things, Beazley said, which is why Ritalin and Adderall are prescribed. A user can become addicted to the dopamine stimulation, Beazley said.  

“With repeated abuse, and with higher doses, the brain adapts to this, and wants more and more,” Beazley said. “It begins to crave it over time.”  

Students who are addicted to stimulants will display certain signs over time, Beazley said.

“Some who is "are" abusing it... would have extra energy, irritability… their speech may be more rapid… they’re upped,” Beazley said. “If that person continues to use it, they become agitated. In extreme amounts, it can cause things like paranoia, psychotic symptoms… then that person would crash. They may sleep for a long time.”

Overall, the risk for medical complication and addiction isn’t worth it, White said, as the stimulants have had no proven effect on focus in those who do not have ADHD or other attention-deficit disorders.

“It can help people stay awake and study for a longer time but, the study quality is diminished,” White said.  “Anecdotal evidence from adolescent social media sites suggest no benefits or worse outcomes when people take the drug before a test to increase focus. People instead felt overconfident, unable to focus and irritable.”

Though Adderall and Ritalin can be taken for therapeutic purposes, that does not make them safe to use without a doctor’s direction, Beazley said.  

“It is not a benign substance,” Beazley said.

Students seeking help for addiction recovery can visit CMHS at the fourth floor of Arjona Building. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, contact CHMS at 860-486-4705 or visit http://counseling.uconn.edu.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.