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Adderall on Campus: Students Just Don’t Get ADHD or How the Med Levels the Playing Field for Me

Exam time jump-starts the hunt for Adderall by students who want an edge, and a total disregard for those who actually need it.

ADHD college student doesn't always take medication
ADHD college student doesn't always take medication

I attend Columbia University in New York. Students are well educated, forward thinking, and often promote parity on many different levels. Despite this, students with learning differences here often experience criticism and adversity as a result of their conditions.

The student body has a lack of knowledge and awareness of learning differences: It is ill informed about the causes, effects, and treatments of such conditions. Because students are misguided in their perceptions of learning differences such as ADHD, their opinions and actions are often detrimental to the lives of other students.

When I arrived on campus as a freshman last fall, I was not prepared for the many changes and challenges I would face. I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was four, and have been on and off stimulant medications since then. Through high school, my ADHD did not significantly affect my daily life. I was smart enough to get through school without my mind being fully attentive to my studies. On the social front, it was not necessary for me to be mentally engaged with my peers at all waking hours of the day.

College is different, and with the first few months, I realized that my ADHD was causing problems in my academic and social life. So I returned to taking a daily regimen of stimulant medicine prescribed by my doctor. With a new awareness of my disorder, I also became more aware of my peers’ perceptions and judgments of learning disabilities.

The Columbia University student body is made up of some of the most intelligent and well-educated college students in the world, but I am shocked by how misguided it is regarding the use of Adderall and other stimulants. The medicines that are vital to my daily functioning are viewed by many of my peers as mere tools to get a better grade. Around exam time each semester, students begin to post on social media looking for Adderall and other drugs, so they can be more productive during their long stints in the library studying for exams.

[Read: The (New) Big Drugs on Campus]

This is unacceptable. These actions represent a blatant discounting of both ADHD as a genuine disorder and the medicines used to treat it.

In a 2007 study that compiled students’ rationalizations for misusing stimulants, one individual said, “It is the same as taking a bunch of coffee. It’s the same as if someone just drank several cups of coffee before class. Is that bad?” Yes, it is bad. Stimulants are not caffeine. Caffeine would not help change the neurochemical processes in my frontal lobe that are responsible for the impact that ADHD has on multiple areas of my life. This misguided reasoning ignores the fact that those diagnosed with ADHD have true biological differences, and undercuts the idea that stimulants are truly necessary for ADHDers to function.

Other students rationalize their misuse of Adderall by diagnosing themselves with ADHD. Not knowing that there are formal diagnostic guidelines for the disorder, a student in that study stated, “I have always thought I was ADHD. I have always had problems concentrating… I can’t even watch a movie without getting bored.” Another said, “I have friends with it [ADD] and they are just like me. They can’t focus and get things done.”

These inaccurate notions prove detrimental to all of us with ADHD. When students assume they have the disorder because they cannot focus, they think that lack of focus is the only symptom of ADHD, a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts many other areas of a person’s life. They disregard the language problems, the social anxieties, the irrepressible fidgeting, and the numerous other hidden symptoms.

What is the result? Students with ADHD are isolated, misunderstood, and subjected to unfounded negative biases. Their peers erroneously assume these students are using stimulants as a study tool. They may face harsh judgment and ridicule for attempting to gain an advantage when their medicines are merely leveling the playing field.

How can we change this? Students and administrators at college campuses around the country should foster a greater awareness of ADHD and its treatment. Judgment, ridicule, and off-putting perceptions of ADHD will become a thing of the past, and, as they are met with more understanding, students living with ADHD will experience a more productive and fulfilling college life.

[Read This Next: “I Sold My ADHD Medication and Got Caught”]


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Updated on October 6, 2020

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  1. I direct this to no particular person. Unlike recent college grads, I have been around the block with over 40 years with for-profit corporations, so listen to me! They tolerate no mistakes, missed deadlines or what they perceive as mealy-mouth excuses of mental health problems. By law, you are not legally required to disclose any health problems (with an exception for airplane pilots). So I say DON’T unless you want to sign the death warrant on your own career.

    If you don’t want a fight, why pick a fight? What difference does it make if your peer group is smoking pot? Why would you care? I’ve had ADD since I was 6 and I will not reveal it even if waterboarded. To admit this in the workplace would destroy my standing with my bosses and peers. I have the image of a mildly eccentric nerd, but approachable and good at my job. I don’t need or want a bad label.

    Let’s say that my HR director were to find out my embarrassing ADD secret. That would send him scurrying to the internet. He would assume that I check ALL the boxes and that I am an alcoholic, can’t sit still in meetings and would blurt out comments unrelated to the discussion. Then I’d be put on his secret list of layoff candidates. So how would such a revelation help me?

    What if one has incurable gonorrhea? Imagine being a college student and trying to join a fraternity. Would you admit that? Uh, I didn’t think so, so don’t let your own mouth be your own worst enemy.

  2. Coby, thank you for sharing your story. This is such a sore subject for me. Even in high school this has been happening. Some parents with neuro-typical kids think it’s ok medicating their child so they potentially can do better on a test. As you say, there goes the level playing field for those with ADHD who have to work 5 times as hard. Doctors prescribing to those that truly do not have ADHD should lose their licenses. Unfortunately students selling need to stop and realize they are hurting themselves and others with ADHD. Schools around the country need to educate all students about this but unfortunately in this current climate of selfishness, I’m not sure it will help that much. Fortunately our son is now in a private school where students with learning differences are not treated any differently than neuro-typical kids. Congrats to you on being at Columbia : )

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