In a shifting economy without any assurances of success, there’s a lot of pressure on students to succeed in school. More and more kids are going to college and the application process is competitive. To help stand out, students are taking on tougher course loads, along with extracurricular activities and leadership roles. In order to pack everything in, some kids turn to prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin to stay awake and focus on school work and test prep. They can obtain the medication from doctors, peers and sources they find online. However, many of these students, both in high school and in college, don’t know the physical or neurological ramifications of taking drugs that haven’t been prescribed to them by a doctor.
“We live in this culture of excellence,” said Michael McCutcheon, a counseling psychology phD candidate at New York University, on KQED’s Forum, “and if you are at a competitive high school and you know the culture really only celebrates success or money, then everything is riding on this test.” That overwhelming pressure – the feeling that every test and grade matters for ones future – combined with ease of access to these drugs makes their use seductive. Stanford Graduate School of Education senior lecturer Denise Pope found similar experiences among thousands of high school students she has interviewed or observed in her work.
“These kids are completely overloaded,” Pope said. “They come from high achieving schools, but these kids feel like there’s more homework than there is time in a day.” She cited increased pressure to take Advanced Placement or honors classes that require lots of homework, along with the explosion of extracurricular activities and the time students devote to them as some of the reasons for increased stress.
“The kids who cheat in high school, absolutely cheat in college,” Pope said. “My guess would be that if this is negative coping strategy that you are employing, it’s your go-to strategy when you have the stress and overload in college.”
Indeed, study drugs are most often used by high achieving high school students and among college student-athletes and those who participate in the Greek system. A 2009 review of the literature on study drugs found that anywhere between five and nine percent of middle and high school students, and five to 35 percent of college students use prescription drugs to stay awake and focus longer than they would normally.
WHAT STUDY DRUGS DO TO THE BRAIN
Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to kids with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These kids are easily distracted by visual or auditory background noises, which can overwhelm them and make it hard to focus. People with ADD or ADHD don’t produce enough dopamine in the brain, which the drugs help correct.
“They are meant to increase dopamine in the brain, which regulates two things: executive functioning and the rewards system in the brain,” said Michelle Goldsmith, assistant clinical professor at Stanford. “Both of those things come into play when we talk about attention.”
For kids who actually need Adderall or Ritalin, the brain’s dopamine pathways aren’t strong enough to circulate the neural signals that make certain mental processes go. For those kids the added dopamine can have a huge influence on ability to focus, but also comes with some less desirable side effects when the drug wears off like fatigue, depression and mood-swings. There’s a lot less known about how the drug affects brains that start out with normal dopamine levels because clinicians consider it too risky to conduct a study that would subject “normal” students to the drug.
“The question is do they really help normal people with learning,” Goldsmith said, “There hasn’t been any reason to study them because the risks are so significant.” Those risks include depression, psychosis, mood swings, suicidal thoughts, seizures, decreased appetite and insomnia.
Read the full story at KQED.