Going to college is an exciting time in the life of any young adult. For young people with AD/HD, it's a special challenge. They're trading old routines for the freedom and responsibility of structuring their own time - and facing new intellectual challenges while forging new relationships. To complicate matters, these youngsters may find that the medication they've been taking for years has suddenly become very interesting - to their fellow students.
It's no secret that some college students experiment with drugs. These days, the abuse isn't limited to painkillers, tranquilizers, and street drugs like marijuana and cocaine. College students are swallowing, snorting, and even injecting stimulants typically prescribed to treat AD/HD.
Kids with AD/HD are unlikely to be among the abusers; evidence suggests that most view the drugs as a way to get where they need to go, not tickets to a joyride. But the popularity of AD/HD drugs among those who do not have AD/HD can make life very complicated for those who do.
Students who decline requests to hand over "just a few pills" may lose friends. Students who do give away (or sell) pills may skip doses - and wind up under-medicated. No matter what these youngsters do, they are subject to the innuendo that the drugs they take in order to function normally give them an unfair advantage. "They know that it helps them concentrate better," says Mark Freeman, Ph.D., president of the American College Counselors Association. "They may wonder if they are, in fact, getting an unfair advantage."
It doesn't help when news reports cast doubt on the legitimacy of AD/HD diagnoses. One recent TV news program, for example, featured a student who faked AD/HD in order to get a prescription for Ritalin. According to the program, all he had to do was fill out a true-false questionnaire.
"The media create an aura that kids are forced to live with," says Ashley Klein, a coach and academic advisor who works with AD/HD students in Tucson, Arizona. "They have to contend with the implication that AD/HD isn't a real disorder."
What's the appeal?
Some youngsters misuse AD/HD medication because it gives them a high. Others do so to boost their concentration when they hit the books - to become "super students." Truth is, AD/HD drugs can amplify the ability to focus in almost everyone - not just those who have AD/HD.
"Adderall is amazing," says Doreen, an Indiana University business major who does not have AD/HD. "Not only does it keep you up and help you focus, it makes you want to study. I can learn so much faster when I take it." Finals time for Doreen has been Adderall time, since freshman year. "Almost every other business school student I know has used Adderall at one time or another," she says.
"You see this a lot among students who have been avoiding classes and work, to get through finals and the last four weeks of school," says Dr. Freeman. "Students are constantly told they have to excel," says Kelly Burch-Ragan, Ph.D., president of the International Association of Addiction and Offender Counselors. "They come from high school to an environment with a lot more academic and social demands, and these drugs represent an instantaneous fix."
Indeed, research shows that the more competitive a college's admission standards, the higher the rate of stimulant misuse.