Your Student May Be Abusing Drugs, & Their Drug of Choice Will Surprise You
“Whenever midterms or finals come around, people come out of the woodwork to beg for my pills.”
At age 21, Kyle Craig, a student at Vanderbilt University, jumped in front of a passenger train and ended his life.
A few years before his suicide, he was an athlete and musician with a 3.5 GPA, but he was surrounded by fraternity brothers and friends who were getting better grades. Kyle thought he could do better, feeling internal pressure to boost his GPA to be more comparable.
He purchased Adderall pills for $10 each. He’d heard that ADHD medications, aka “smart drugs,” would improve his focus, give him more energy, and provide a big boost to his grades. Instead of continuing to buy pills from friends, he went to a doctor and lied about having ADHD symptoms. The doctor wrote him a prescription, no questions asked.
Kyle’s mother noticed the prescription bottle when he came home for vacation, and he told her he used the medication for studying. "I truly fault myself," she told ABC News. "I didn't do any homework on it like a parent should. But he had the green light from a doctor."
Kyle’s grades rose. He snagged a prestigious internship at a New York investment bank. But his parents also noted signs of moodiness and growing depression. Unbeknownst to them, Kyle had sought help from a college counselor about feelings of social anxiety.
As his mood swings and paranoia worsened, Kyle’s mother asked him to see a psychologist. He attended two sessions, and his counselor planned to invite both Kyle and his family to their third session.
Kyle never made it.
A Growing Epidemic
According to a survey of young adults ages 18 to 25 by the Partnership for a Drug Free America, 1 in 6 has misused or abused prescription stimulant medication. The most popular smart drugs abused by young adults are Adderall (60 percent), Ritalin (20 percent), and Vyvanase (14 percent).
Students who abuse smart drugs aren’t stereotypical troubled kids. According to the survey, students on smart drugs are more likely to identify as leaders and social hubs for friends who enjoy being the center of attention.
They also were more likely than non-abusers to struggle with finding a balance between activities and personal life, and they were more likely to hold full-time jobs while attending school and to receive no financial support from their parents. They’re independent, driven, high achievers who are socially active — just like Kyle.
How Smart Drugs Work
Adderall consists of four timed-released amphetamines that cause the release of two key neurotransmitters: dopamine and norepinephrine. Within the brain, these neurotransmitters increase alertness, improve cognitive performance, and boost the mood.
For students who actually suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), these medications can be a boon, significantly improving both academic performance and quality of life. Those with ADHD find they feel more alert and less fatigued when taking Adderall and other smart drugs.
But, for students who don’t have ADHD, while taking smart drugs also enhances cognitive performance — there’s a catch, and it’s related to the two neurotransmitters. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, dopamine stimulates the brain’s reward circuits, causing many addicts to experience a high and a sense of pleasure.
In response to this dopamine flood, however, the brain starts making less of its own dopamine and fewer reward circuit cells to respond to dopamine, which means addicts need more of the drug to experience the same effects.
Although the role of norepinephrine in drug addiction is still the subject of much speculation, researchers writing for the Biological Psychiatry Journal suggest that norepinephrine makes people feel a sense of stress or anxiety when they stop taking drugs. This anxiety creates a feedback loop which causes a smart drug abuser to become dependent on the medication. It also makes withdrawal physically and mentally grueling. As one 20-year-old college student explains:
“My use of Adderall as a study aid, 20 milligrams every so often, quickly escalated into 100+ milligrams daily doses within six months of meeting a student who'd sell me his entire script for $60 each month. Amphetamine tolerance builds very quickly, and soon I wasn't able to obtain the energy and focus for which I came to depend upon amphetamines. I finally got help for my addiction, but I had to take time off of school to heal the damage I'd done to my brain chemistry.”
Why Do They Do It?
Most smart drug abusers are seeking what Swiss researchers call “neuroenhancement.” In a November 2013 PLOS One study, the Swiss team revealed insights from a study of over 6,000 students from the University of Zurich, the University of Basel, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.
Neuroenhancement, according to the Swiss students, is about boosting both cognitive and emotional functioning. Students want to be more alert, improve concentration, and boost their memory capacity. They also want to experience better moods and eliminate fatigue.
Most of the time, in universities all over the world, a college student’s desire for neuroenhancement coincides with term paper due dates or tough examinations. “Whenever midterms or finals come around, people come out of the woodwork to beg for my pills,” a 20-year-old college male from Cleveland told The New York Times. “I get text messages from unrecognized numbers asking ‘Do you have any Addy?’”
Too Much Pressure
To be fair, not every student who abuses smart drugs is a full-time overachiever. “Adderall enabled partiers and procrastinators to wait until the last minute before studying (and to push that ‘last minute’ later and later) while still receiving respectable low B's or C's,” a 22-year-old California student claims. “I noticed the most prevalent stimulant use among college students who were not extremely driven to get good grades; rather, they were more interested in socializing or were too lazy to start studying sooner.”
At the same time, increased parental and social pressure for high achievement is often a factor in smart drug abuse. For many students, this pressure starts as early as middle school, and it increases during high school as students compete for prime slots in the best colleges.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 10 kids between the ages of 5 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. In some cases, children and young adults who have prescriptions for drugs like Adderall share their medications with peers who don’t have ADHD. Some even sell individual pills to make extra money.
For many students who’ve taken smart drugs to boost their grades, the circumstantial rewards matter more than the euphoric feelings associated with smart drug abuse. One 26-year-old male told The New York Times, “Used Adderall for the SAT. Boosted my score. Admitted to good schools. End of story. I did grit my teeth when using ... but it was a small price to pay.”
The human brain continues to develop well into a person’s mid-20s. In a brain still under construction, smart drugs can cause chronic depression and anxiety. When a person without ADHD takes smart drugs, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and aggression, can become overactive.
Once the brain starts to make less of its own dopamine, it’s difficult to stimulate it to make more on its own. This can lead to severe depression, mood dysregulation, and, in the worst-case scenarios, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
When to Worry
To Kyle’s parents, the warning signs of Adderall abuse looked like the normal stressed-out reaction of an overachieving young adult. They knew he took Adderall sometimes, but they didn’t know it was endangering his life.
Some parents notice a change in the time of day they receive phone calls and text messages while others notice changes in the way students spend money. They also notice changes in hygiene or grooming. Unfortunately, many college students, on their own for the first time, abuse their sleep schedules, spend money unwisely, and roll out of bed and go to class without changing clothes. It’s tough to tell whether these behaviors are normal growing pains or signs of real trouble.
Like Kyle, many smart drug abusers begin to experience alternating periods of exhilaration and severe depression. They may also experience a number of other physical and emotional symptoms, including:
Some students taking smart drugs also experience rapid heartbeat or dangerous increases in blood pressure. For these symptoms, students should seek immediate medical attention.
Not every student feels hyperactive or euphoric while taking smart drugs. Some describe feeling more like a “zombie or a robot.” In some cases, taking smart drugs becomes a gateway to taking other drugs. Students may abuse Xanax for a calming effect, or they may combine stimulants with binge drinking or heroin use.
Because early signs of smart drug abuse can be difficult to confirm, parents have to trust their instincts. One of the most dangerous things to do is to ask college students to stop taking the drugs without appropriate support. Support may include both inpatient and outpatient treatment in the short term. Many students also benefit from ongoing support group attendance, both in-person and online.
If you discover your student is abusing smart drugs, or if you notice severe symptoms of anxiety, depression, psychosis, or physical distress, you absolutely cannot stay silent. Take these steps to start motivating your child to seek treatment:
Start a conversation. Tell your child that you’ve seen the medication or that you’ve noticed worrisome symptoms. Ask if you can help.
Expect denial. Most students deny taking smart drugs or deny that they’re in any real danger. Make it clear that if they need help, they can count on you.
Prepare for disruption. Your child may miss a semester or more of school as they withdraw from smart drugs and get used to life without them. If college-aged, they may need to move home for a short time or may need financial assistance, so be ready and willing to offer help.
Research treatment options. Start learning about drug rehabilitation programs in your area. Call for a consultation so you know more about the process, and get advice on persuading your child to seek help.
Talk to an attorney. If your child gets to the point of being in serious danger, showing symptoms of psychosis, or feeling suicidal, it’s important to know your rights when your child is over 18. Talk to an attorney now about laws in your state related to taking action on behalf of your adult child.
Avoid judgment. Most likely, your child takes smart drugs because they put a lot of pressure on themselves, so it’s important that you don’t make them feel judged. Addiction is a health problem, not a moral failing. Offer support and unconditional love.
If your child does have legitimate struggles with attention and concentration, advise switching to a non-stimulant ADHD medication. Talk to your doctor about Straterra, Kapvay, Intuniv, and other non-stimulant alternatives to smart drugs.
We’re Here for You
Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches provides treatment for smart drug abuse. Our facilities are licensed by both the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.
Our top-notch professional staff is licensed and has over 20 years of experience successfully treating addiction along with a wide range of mental health challenges. Your family is involved during the withdrawal process, during treatment, and throughout post-treatment support. If you need financial support, we can offer multiple options to help you manage the cost of treatment. We always respect the privacy and confidentiality of every patient.
Kyle’s story had a tragic ending, but your child can take a different path. Don’t wait for your child’s symptoms to become irreversible. Call us at 888-432-2467 or complete our confidential web form and someone from our staff will contact you.