The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday December 4th

How depression, anxiety and Adderall misuse intersect on college campuses

The 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 50.5 percent of those aged 18-25 who had used prescription stimulants in the past year had misused them.
Buy Photos The 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 50.5 percent of those aged 18-25 who had used prescription stimulants in the past year had misused them.

About 16 million United States adults used prescription stimulants in 2017. Adderall, a commonly prescribed drug, is used to treat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder like inattention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.

The 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 50.5 percent of those aged 18-25 who had used prescription stimulants in the past year had misused them. Stimulant misuse among young adults is a growing problem, partially due to college students attempting to make studying easier. 

The national survey, performed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, also found 22.4 percent of people in that age group with “any mental illness” misused stimulants, compared to just 12.0 percent of people with “no mental illness.”

According to a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study published in 2016, the amount of prescriptions written for Adderall remained the same from 2006 to 2011, but emergency room visits because of the drug and its misuse have risen among the adult population. The study found that non-medical use of Adderall rose 67 percent over the six-year study period.

A voluntary survey of 145 UNC students showed that 38.6 percent of students surveyed had used Adderall or similar prescription stimulants in the past month. Of those, 60.7 percent used it illegally without a prescription. 

Beth Kurtz-Costes, a UNC psychology professor, said students who go to college or university are an elite group compared to high school students who don't go to college or university. She said since students who make it to college are typically higher achievers than their high school peers, the stakes are higher and there could be additional stressors for students. This could get in the way of academic performance and may potentially cause students to turn to stimulants as one way to keep up.

“An amount of anxiety that is serious enough that it requires someone to go to CAPS or to seek outside help will definitely hamper performance," Kurtz-Costes said. "A moderate amount of anxiety is considered good. You’ll perform better on an exam or in giving a speech if you’re moderately aroused or anxious, but going beyond a certain point, certainly, is a deterrent to performance.”

Balancing school, a personal life and a job can be a challenge for students, and this could significantly impact their academic performance. Of the college students surveyed by the American College Health Association in 2018, 41.4 percent said they had felt so depressed it was difficult to function in the past year, while 62.3 percent had experienced overwhelming anxiety within the past year.

Though there are a lot of students who use Adderall or other stimulants without a prescription, many people truly depend on them for medical reasons.

Paige Masten, a sophomore journalism and economics major who serves on The Daily Tar Heel's editorial board, is prescribed Adderall for ADHD. She said the way the drug works on people with ADHD is beneficial because of their different brain chemistry. 

“When I take my Adderall, I don’t have the same effects. I don’t feel super productive and I don’t feel like I’m going to stay up all night the same way they do. I just feel kind of normal and able to function, whereas without it I can’t focus whatsoever,” she said. “People who take it for exams or just when they’re stressed, it kind of can mess with their brain because they’ll stay up way longer than they need to, they’ll be really jittery and hyper-attentive. I think, ultimately, it does the opposite of what it’s supposed to be doing for them, whereas for me it makes me into a more normal person.”

According to the Texas A&M University Health Science Center, Adderall helps lower stimulation levels of people with ADHD to help them function better. However, the drug can overstimulate people without attention disorders and cause stroke or death.

Masten said Adderall is already restricted because of its status as a controlled substance. She said she is only able to be prescribed Adderall for three months at a time, and she is only given exactly the amount she needs for that time to ensure she is not misusing it.

“Obviously I have the luxury and the privilege of being able to go to the doctor when I need to and being able to afford it. But there’s also some people who struggle with ADHD who may not have that same luxury, and making it even harder would make it even more difficult for them to obtain the drugs they need to be as productive as people without ADHD,” she said. “I think that that further disadvantages them in a way that would be really unfair.”


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