By Jeffrey Meyers, CPC, ASAC

Across the country, millions of college students are about to enter the final days of their fall term. With it comes the excitement of a much-needed break, but not before the dreaded finals week. Finals represent a time of unique stress, in which everything that was learned will be tested, and deadlines must be met. For some students, this pressure has unfortunately led to the abuse of prescription stimulants, medications commonly prescribed for disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The abuse of these medications poses both short term and long term risk, often unbeknownst to the user.

These prescription stimulants include drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, and Vyvanse and can offer real benefit if used medically, under the supervision of a doctor. Using these drugs non-medically, without a diagnosis or prescription, constitutes abuse. Students that abuse these drugs do so in the hopes they will get an energy boost, while at the same time increasing their overall alertness and ability to focus. According to a Johns Hopkins 2016 report, this practice is on the rise, and most commonly seen among 18 to 25 year olds. Studies put the estimated percentage of all college students that abuse at close to 1 in 5, a staggering number.

While the students abusing these medications may experience some added energy and even focus, the risks of abuse cannot be ignored. ADHD drugs interact with dopamine levels in the brain, which raises the potential for addiction in a way similar to some illegal drugs. This is because these drugs can disrupt the “reward system” of the brain, causing not only dependence but also altering the natural factors for motivation and pleasure.

In addition to potentially altering the brain, stimulant abuse can also take a physical toll on the body, leading to dangerously high body temperatures, rapid heartbeat, sleep disruptions, and even put you at increased risk for seizures or heart attack. Its these sort of complications that saw a 156% increase in emergency room visits between 2006-2011, as the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research found.

What can be done to address this issue? For students, healthy outlets to channel finals’ stress include adequate sleep, exercise, and regularly scheduled breaks from studying. Parents and faculty can help to raise awareness by warning against the dangers of stimulant abuse and advice on healthy alternatives. Time management skills, as an example, represent a great drug-free way to stay on task and yet not feel overwhelmed. When students are given the tools to be successful without abusing drugs, and are also informed on the very real risks of abuse, they become positioned to make the right choice.