Adderall Abuse: Study Aid or Dangerous Drug?
Prescription drug abuse is rampant across the United States, with prescription painkillers leading to opiate addiction and overdose deaths at epidemic-level rates. However, opioids are not the only prescribed medications wreaking havoc in the lives of individuals and families around the country.
Adderall, a stimulant medication used most commonly in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), has become a disturbingly mainstream “study drug,” reportedly used by a substantial number of college students. Though minimal stigma is associated among college students with the use of the drug, the risks associated with Adderall abuse are grave, and parents and students should be informed of the warning signs and risks associated with it.
What is Adderall?
Adderall is classified by the federal government as a Schedule II drug, meaning it has a legally sanctioned medical value, but a high potential for abuse. The generic name for the drug is amphetamine or dextroamphetamine. Like other amphetamine drugs, Adderall is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant which increases the number of neurotransmitters in the brain in order to speed up brain activity and processing. These neurotransmitters include norepinephrine, which regulates alertness and arousal, and dopamine, which regulates motivation.
Like other prescription medications, legal sales of the drug have increased exponentially over the last two decades. In fact, the Center for Disease Control reported that the percentage of children between the ages of 4 and 17 years old who were taking a prescribed medication for ADHD increased by 28% between 2003 and 2011, with more than 3.5 million children prescribed by that year.
Side effects associated with the drug include difficulties eating and sleeping, heightened anxiety, irritability, increased heart rate, dizziness, and headaches. In the long term, because of its impact on the dopamine system, Adderall has a high potential for addiction. Adderall is most commonly ingested by swallowing or snorting the drug.
What is Adderall used for?
As a medication, Adderall is used in the treatment of ADHD, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Narcolepsy, and several other conditions. Primarily, though, the drug is associated with the treatment of ADHD. The effect of Adderall on the central nervous system increases the ability of the user to focus and remain alert for a sustained period of time, abilities that are compromised in individuals with ADHD. For many children with this condition, Adderall and other CNS stimulants make it possible to sit in class, do homework, and play with other children. Thus, the ability to function socially and academically is supported by Adderall for children with ADHD.
Because of its medical utility and widespread use, Adderall is generally not stigmatized in the same way chemically similar illicit drugs are. For example, street drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine have many of the same effects as Adderall and, depending on the quantities, can be similarly dangerous and addictive. However, because Adderall is a prescription medication, it is widely viewed as safe, legal, and pure. Although tested by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), when used improperly, Adderall is by no means safe. Furthermore, selling or obtaining the Schedule II drug without a prescription is a criminal offense and, in some cases, can subject the buyer or seller to mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Adderall for studying
Because of its ability to increase focus and attention, students who do not have attention deficit disorders have turned to Adderall to improve their ability to study. Students typically report that Adderall helps them to concentrate, allows them to stay up late to study and work on assignments, and that it makes the material they are studying more interesting and palatable. There is no credible evidence, however, that Adderall actually makes users smarter.
Students obtain the drug illegally in a number of ways:
- Taking them from a friend or family member who is prescribed the drug
- Lying to a prescriber about symptoms
- Purchasing Adderall on the street
Adderall is designed to balance out deficits of neurotransmitters in order to promote normal functioning. For someone whose brain is already producing these neurotransmitters at normal rates, introducing Adderall into their system can bring those levels to excessive rates, creating feelings of euphoria and heightening the potential for addiction. For these reasons, it is dangerous for students who are not diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, or another indicated condition to be taking Adderall to improve academic performance.
Adderall abuse in college students
Among college students, taking Adderall as a study drug is widely accepted as a safe and normal practice. The pills are bought and sold among students right on campus, and prices fluctuate depending on the time of semester—with prices at their highest right around the time of finals. The ability to spend one or two nights cramming before an exam or to get a paper done frees students up to spend a larger portion of their semester enjoying parties, socializing, and other aspects of the college experience. Whether Adderall-induced, all-night study sessions actually result in the same type of success as a student would have with consistent studying over the course of a semester is questionable at best. Yet, this pattern is extremely common among college students.
Adderall is not just used for academic enhancement, either. Many students report using Adderall to be able to stay up later and party harder. While many college students view a street drug like cocaine as abhorrent and “dirty,” Adderall’s stimulant properties produce many of the same effects.
Adderall abuse statistics
Rates of Adderall abuse vary from one college to another. One study of a large university in the southeast found that 34% of participants reported having used prescriptions ADHD medications illegally. Further research tells us that Adderall is widely available on college campuses. A study of over 9,000 college undergraduates found that 90% of those participants who admitted to non-medical stimulant use reported that they obtained the drug from a friend or peer. Other findings indicate that non-prescription Adderall abuse is more common among the following populations:
- Male students
- White students
- Students belonging to a fraternity or sorority
- Students with a lower grade point average (GPA)
It was also reported that students who abused Adderall were more likely to abuse other substances as well.
Signs of Adderall abuse
It can be difficult to know when someone is using Adderall. You may notice that someone under the influence of the drug is more talkative or energetic than usual. Additionally, while under the influence of Adderall, appetite is suppressed, so the user typically eats little while they are using, or not at all. In fact, many Adderall abusers take the drug for its appetite suppression qualities. After Adderall wears off, you may notice the user sleeps for several hours and may be ravenously hungry. They may also appear depressed or disinterested in mood.
Effects of Adderall abuse
When taken sporadically and without proper medical supervision, Adderall users experience a sort of “crash” as the medication wears off. This can be a clear indication that someone is abusing Adderall. Symptoms can include:
- Irritability and extreme anxiety, including panic attacks
- Erratic sleep
- Intense hunger
- Unhappiness, depression, and—in some cases—suicidality
- Intense cravings to use more Adderall
Though rare, Adderall use can also result in overdose. Signs of an Adderall overdose include:
- Uncontrollable shaking
- Fast/irregular breathing and heart rate
- Dark red or brown urine
- Dizziness, blurred vision, or fainting
- Seizures, coma, or loss of consciousness
In the event of a suspected overdose, 9-1-1 should be contacted immediately.
Long-term effects of Adderall abuse
Habitual use can lead to even more substantial symptoms in the absence of continued use and, in some cases, full blown withdrawal. Side effects of long-term, habitual Adderall abuse for adults and teens can include:
- Weight loss and loss of appetite
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Insomnia and headaches
- Anxiety and agitation
- Urinary tract infections
As someone becomes addicted to Adderall and develops a substance use disorder, they will begin to take higher doses of the drug to achieve the same effect and may begin to spend large amounts of money on it. Additionally, an addicted user will continue to take Adderall in the face of negative consequences clearly associated with use. Where someone might have started taking Adderall to do better in school, that same person might begin to fail classes and not turn in assignments as a result of their Adderall addiction.
In addition to typical substance abuse treatment modalities, which include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), 12-step facilitation, and motivational interviewing, most inpatient and outpatient treatment programs will assess for and treat any co-occurring mental health conditions. Such conditions that commonly co-occur with substance use disorders include depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Additionally, if the Adderall user is, in fact, diagnosed with ADHD but has become addicted to Adderall, alternative treatment methods and medications are usually explored.
Adderall abuse withdrawal
When someone stops taking Adderall, negative and painful symptoms, referred to as withdrawal, ensue. Although physically unpleasant, withdrawal from Adderall in and of itself is not dangerous. However, psychological withdrawal symptoms including depression, anxiety, and severe cravings can, in some cases, lead to suicidal or violent intentions or behaviors by the user during the period of withdrawal.
Other symptoms include:
- Erratic sleeping and eating patterns
- Anxiety, agitation, and irritability
- Gastrointestinal distress and other digestive issues
These symptoms typically last one to two weeks. It is recommended that individuals in withdrawal from Adderall be medically monitored and, ideally, kept in an inpatient treatment setting. Though the dangers associated with Adderall withdrawal are minimal, the intense discomfort and cravings can substantially increase the likelihood of relapse if the patient is not properly supported.
Treatment for Adderall abuse
Depending on the severity of an individual’s Adderall use, his or her general health, motivation for treatment, and other circumstances, detoxification, or detox, and short- or long-term residential treatment may be required. This treatment includes medical monitoring of withdrawal symptoms, heart rate and other vital signs, counseling, and other intensive interventions. Detox is typically anywhere from 5 to 14 days, and residential programs range from a few weeks to a few months.
Detox can typically be done during a semester if the patient coordinates with his or her professors to extend assignments and make up missed exams. However, even short-term residential programs require an amount of missed class time that typically necessitates a leave of absence from school. If the individual’s addiction is severe, and especially if they are abusing multiple substances, an inpatient residential program is likely necessary. Students who take a leave of absence can generally start their classes again the following semester and, in some cases, may have an opportunity to make up credits for classes they withdrew from in a modified, more manageable fashion.
In some cases, though, an outpatient treatment program can be made to fit into the patient’s class schedule. Outpatient programs are typically anywhere from 3 to 15 hours per week and include a mix of group and individual therapy sessions. Outpatient treatment is designed for patients who are either highly motivated or whose addiction severity is milder. This makes sense because, although patients receive substantial support through outpatient care, they are not in a controlled environment, so substances are very accessible.
Information for parents and students
For as many negative influences and draws as can be found on college campuses, there are also supports and safe havens. Students who are struggling with Adderall addiction can visit their school’s counseling center to learn what resources are available on campus. Campus counseling staff can also sometimes be an advocate in the event that you do need to take a leave of absence to pursue your recovery. Campus counselors should also be able to point you to local community-based support groups, like Narcotics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, or student-led support groups.
Treatment for Adderall abuse is available
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction to Adderall or other drugs, The Recover is available to help you find the information and resources needed to help start the recovery process. Let us help you find a treatment program that will meet your needs. Call (888) 510-3898 or visit our or US rehab center map today!