If you’d like a mind that can decimate an equation, leap gracefully to a thesis and inhale knowledge by the textbook, never fear—there’s a pill for that. Ordinarily prescribed to children and adults with ADHD, such amphetamine-based medications are so effective for students that they’re called “study drugs”—and everyone’s taking them. At least, that’s what most of us think.
In fact, according to a survey conducted by Northwestern’s Health Promotion and Wellness office, 73.6 percent of surveyed students say the average Northwestern student uses non-prescribed stimulants at least once a year.
But this belief is misplaced. Another survey by the National College Health Assessment and distributed by the Health Promotion and Wellness office found that five to eight percent of Northwestern students abuse stimulant drugs in a given year. And most of them don’t do it very often.
“The perception is dramatically off,” says Lisa Currie, director of the Health Promotion and Wellness office. Currie provided data on students’ perceived versus actual use of non-prescribed stimulants.
“It does seem to the students themselves, everyone’s doing it ... when in reality there’s a small percentage,” says Lynn Gerstein, the alcohol and other drugs specialist at Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychological Services. She says that Northwestern’s rates keep it below the 8.5 percent nationwide average for undergraduate institutions, according to a 2011 NCHA core survey.
Gerstein says she is surprised by national rates of non-prescribed stimulant use, which have remained remarkably steady over the past several decades despite growing media coverage of study drugs that includes in-depth stories by the New York Times.
However, Currie believes the numbers make sense. She says that the growing national conversation around study drugs has only increased students’ misperceptions, not their actual usage rates.
“Northwestern kids are smart,” she says. “They know it’s bad for you.”
“I was a little bit skeptical of it before I tried it, but I liked it. I enjoyed it,” says Ryan LeGraw, a McCormick junior majoring in chemical engineering. LeGraw first used Vyvanse during his freshman year. Like most casual study drug users, he uses the slow-release stimulant to shoulder his most academically rigorous weeks.
“They help me ... get through all of my work,” he says, noting that he experiences very few side effects. “I haven’t noticed any ill effects ... I mean, sometimes it’s annoying if you take them too late and it’s hard to get to sleep.”
But LeGraw’s experience is uncommon; using study drugs often leads to serious consequences. These consequences range from the obvious to the insidious: from anxiety and sleeplessness to state-dependent learning.
“With state-dependent learning, you recall information best under the condition which you learned [it],” Gerstein says. Such conditions include altered mental states induced by drug use; a student under the influence may not be able to remember what he has learned once the drug wears off. The state-dependent learning phenomenon is not just limited to study drugs—other drugs, such as marijuana, can also complicate information retention.
And like most sources of college stress, pouring beer on the problem doesn’t help. Gerstein says that because alcohol is a depressant, taking a stimulant like Adderall can trick the body into thinking it is less intoxicated. In fact, she says, mixing substances is always risky because the body’s response is unpredictable.
Gerstein adds that most of the greatest health risks surrounding amphetamines stem from irresponsible use, and students who need study drugs understand how best to mitigate their greatest dangers. But even responsible users experience negative side effects.
“As I come off them I’m so tired, so sluggish, I can barely interact with people,” says Weinberg junior Jane Downer. Downer has been taking Vyvanse since her junior year of high school. “I tried going off a couple times this summer, and I couldn’t.”
Downer returned to taking Vyvanse daily after suffering mental fatigue and insomnia, two common side effects of amphetamine withdrawal. She says she is careful not to skip days.
Though study drugs can cause harm to their users, they’re here to stay. In fact, according to Gerstein, the danger may be part of their appeal.
“This is a very exciting time in people’s lives, where taking some risks and exploring is normal,” she says. “The risks don’t have the same impact as when you’re old like me.”