When a College freshman went home for winter break this year, he went to his doctor for a routine check-up. At the end of the appointment, when the doctor asked him if there was anything else he wished to talk about, the freshman explained he’d been having trouble paying attention in class.
“My grades weren’t as good as I would have liked,” said the freshman, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.
He received a prescription for 15 doses of Adderall — a drug used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — which he filled within a few weeks of returning to Penn. “I would take it around 9:30 before my first class at 10:00, and midway through the lecture, it would start to kick in,” he said.
And while the drug’s effects weren’t “life-changing,” taking it “was like a little tap on the shoulder saying, ‘Hey, you could do all that, but you have a lot of fun studying, so keep going,’” he said.
In terms of the actual work he produced while on Adderall, the freshman admitted his performance has “either been level or just above” where it was last semester.
Psychology professor Martha Farah — who has led several studies on the drug — agreed that taking Adderall has an effect, but it’s “very, very small,” she wrote in an e-mail.
“What students really like about [these drugs] is their motivational effects: they make everything seem more interesting and worthwhile,” she wrote.
Having used the last of the capsules several days ago, the College freshman said he doesn’t plan to jump right back into using Adderall.
“I feel a bit distracted” when not taking the drug, he said, “but not to the point where I couldn’t make heads or tails out of what [the professor] is saying.”
At the same time, Adderall’s expense, risk of side effects — such as cardiovascular issues that accompany long-term use — and the possibility of addiction make him hesitant to continue using it without further testing. “The last thing I want is either addiction or dependence where … I can’t study without it, because then [I’d be] really screwed,” he added.
Though the freshman feels he did not receive a “proper diagnosis” from his doctor to take Adderall, he is among the Penn students with more legitimate means of acquiring the drug.
According to a 2009 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, individuals between the ages of 18 and 22 who attend college are twice as likely to take Adderall than those who are either part-time students or not in college.
Undergraduate Assembly President Matt Amalfitano, a College senior, acknowledged the drug’s prevalence on campus. “Certainly, as a Penn student, I think most of us have seen recreational use of these types of things and other substances,” he said.
Adderall use is “actually more common than you think,” added a Wharton sophomore, who also wished to remain anonymous due to the issue’s sensitivity.
The student — who tried Adderall during finals week in the spring of his freshman year — said the drug makes him more productive and less distracted. He uses it circumstantially rather than regularly, he added, such as when he is studying for a midterm or final, or has an assignment he wants to complete quickly.
“Because [Adderall] helps you focus, you can get more work crammed in a few hours,” he said. “Then you can go out and have fun, get drunk, go out with your friends.”
According to Irena Ilieva — a doctoral psychology student who worked on an Adderall-focused study with Farah from 2008 to 2010 — there may also be contexts and functions for Adderall use for which her research has not yet tested, including insomnia.
“In the real world, students might be taking it to help them stay awake during the night,” she said.
Indeed, the Wharton sophomore said before a midterm last year, he began — and completed — a paper in twelve hours the night before it was due. “Imagine in that situation, without the Adderall, I probably wouldn’t have been able to turn anything in,” he said.
Student Health Services Deputy Director Sallyann Bowman said SHS refers all ADHD and ADD students to Counseling and Psychological Services.
However, neither CAPS nor SHS run ADHD or ADD testing themselves, so they refer students who wish to be tested to local psychologists, Bowman added.
“We try hard to stick to this practice, because it’s important to screen for depression, anxiety and substance abuse,” she wrote in an e-mail.
According to CAPS associate director Meeta Kumar, CAPS also tries to encourage students to develop “strategies to help with organizational and attention skills, time management … to help [them] gain more competencies and confidence.”
Director of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives Julie Lyzinski said society sends “mixed messages” about prescription drugs like Adderall.
“On one hand, these drugs are prescribed by doctors so students often think that they are less dangerous,” Lyzinski wrote in an e-mail. “On the other hand, they are illegal to use, give or sell outside of a prescription.”
The Wharton sophomore found that the “spread of Adderall use [at Penn] is symptomatic of how demanding the school is.”
“Everyone has ten million items on their social agenda. Everyone is chairman of ten clubs,” he said.
Despite the allegedly widespread use of the prescription drug on campus, College sophomore Nathan Werksman said he doesn’t know anyone who has tried the drug.
Students might not use Adderall because it’s “a matter of pride,” Werksman added. “A lot of students don’t think they need help performing well.”
Lyzinski said patterns of Adderall use here simply mimic national trends.
In colleges nationwide, “the number of students with actual prescriptions for prescription stimulants has increased significantly over the past few years,” Lyzinski wrote. At Penn, that number has doubled since 2007, she added.
Indeed, Amalfitano agreed that Adderall use is not a “direct response” to Penn’s atmosphere of competition. “It’s not necessarily Penn-specific, but of our generation, of our culture, of being at an elite institution.”
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