With college campuses around the country gearing up for finals, students will be spending long nights in the library, some of whom will be doing so with the help of ADHD medications like Adderall or Ritalin. In response, schools have been looking for ways to reduce off-label stimulant use, in some instances calling this sort of drug use “cheating.” But classifying stimulant abuse as a form of academic dishonesty, like Duke did earlier this semester,focuses on punishment rather than treatment and ignores the causes of this rising trend.
The question isn’t whether taking Adderall or other ADHD medication without a prescription should be accepted or ignored; their abuse is illegal, but these drugs aren’t regulated on the basis of providing students an unfair advantage in the classroom. Rather, they are regulatedbecause they are powerful psycho-stimulants with a real potential for addiction and physical side effects.
The rise in Adderall use follows a trend of college students reporting higher stress levels and a decrease in emotional health. Full-time students are more than twice as likely to use Adderall without a prescription compared to non-students of the same age, suggesting that there is some correlation in line with the college experience that makes “academic steroids” appealing. Taken together, these statistics show that there is something deeply wrong with the way that higher education is approaching student mental health.
Accusing students of cheating because they take Adderall completely misunderstands the reasoning behind taking the drugs. The research is far from clear about the effectiveness of stimulants for individuals without ADD or ADHD, but students who say that the drugs help them focus or stay awake through all-nighters don't seem to care about their effectiveness. Study drugs don’t make the user measurably more intelligent, and they don’t magically have all the answers to the final exam; these students are effectively self-diagnosing disorders that, whether they have them or not, they feel are hampering their academic performance in some way. Providing students with alternative methods for reducing stress, improving time management, and building confidence will go a long way in alleviating the causes of Adderall abuse, especially for students who have already been caught using the drug.
If we want to view stimulant abuse from an ethical standpoint, it is important to distinguish academics from athletics, where the steroid analogy comes from.
College classes aren’t supposed to be a zero-sum game where the success of one student means failure for all others. Even though the college admissions process and the post-graduation job search have been becoming increasingly competitive over the years, the classroom should free itself from this attitude and return to being a place to develop critical thinking skills and practice free inquiry. Students who use drugs as study aids aren’t looking to best their peers, they simply want to pass their classes. A student who takes Adderall to study all night is still studying. At best, this shows a commitment to academics, at worst it shows a willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed.
On the other hand, the argument that “other students are doing it” or that anyone could take the drugs if they were so inclined is exactly why trying to fight Adderall with the honor code is doomed to fail. It is up to schools to create an environment where there is less of an incentive to use ADHD medication, not more of a punishment for getting caught. Students who abuse prescription drugs are already contravening state and federal law, in addition to campus drug policies; to suggest that another enforcement regulation will do anything to curb this trend is baseless.
Students and their college counselors should work together to address the underlying causes of Adderall abuse on an individual basis instead of trying to stamp it out wholesale. It isn’t the responsibility of faculty to relax expectations for their students, especially in areas of academic integrity, but it is important for colleges and universities to recognize what kind of burden these expectations place on the students, and what effect they can have on mental well-being.
It’s up to administrators to decide whether their concern lies with the mental and physical health of their students or their school’s image. Raising the penalties for off-label ADHD medications only further harms the academic prospects of the students who use them, while doing nothing to help them excel without the drugs.
Photo Credit: Anders Sandberg