How student addictions are influencing academic successes at universities
In 1929, American doctor, Gordon Alles, changed modern medicine and academia forever. Dr. Alles, a researcher for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, on a mission for an allergy cure, had a colleague inject 50 mg of a chemical compound into the doctor’s arm in an attempt to test his remedy. Within minutes, Alles’s nose had cleared and amphetamine took the world by storm.
Alles noted an increased heart rate and as he wrote, “a feeling of well being“. He described feelings of alertness, euphoria, decreased appetite, and better working memory. Within years, amphetamine use exploded––soldiers in World War II used it, and companies marketed it under the brand Benzedrine for women in a “mild psychogenic depressive state.”
Amphetamine is a stimulant––a class of medications primarily used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Research studies have demonstrated stimulants improve quality of life by increasing underproduced neurotransmitters in the brain of those with the disorder. Modified forms of amphetamine, such as Adderall, Concerta and Vyvanse, can provide relief for those with ADHD and give them a life of normalcy.
Misuse of stimulants is not only detrimental to the user, but also to society––particularly in the academic and professional world. Without the supervision of a doctor, and more importantly the medicinal need; stimulant medications are addictive. Their short-term benefits can entice further abuse: less sleep is required, focus and energy are increased, and working memory improves.
In academia, stimulant abuse is an epidemic. A 2018 Yale University study found that between 25 per cent of students in Rocky Mountain colleges and 40 per cent of students in New England colleges reported stimulant drugs as one of the most commonly abused drug on campus. Research on Canadian abuse is far more limited, but a recent estimate is around six per cent.
And the problem is only getting worse; The Globe and Mail reported prescriptions have increased by over 30 per cent in the last five years. If this trend continues, the advantage between those who abuse stimulants over their au naturale peers will continue to become more pronounced and pose a serious risk to the meritocracy modern day academia is built upon.
Action must be taken or the devastating consequences will continue to grow for students and professionals to come. In order to acquire stimulants illicitly, a pill-seeking student needs two things: money and a drug dealer. As rates of stimulant abuse continue to rise, many students who otherwise would not abuse drugs may feel compelled to do so in order to compete with their pharmaceutically enhanced peers.
It’s no coincidence that amphetamine and methamphetamine vary by a single molecular group. When stimulants are taken incorrectly or in massive quantities, an unexpecting student may suffer anxiety, panic attacks and in extreme cases, heart attacks, psychosis or death. The normalization of recklessly pill popping before exams could seize bright students and enslave them to amphetamine. Those prone to addiction may develop a tolerance and potentially deadly addiction.
There are numerous potential solutions to prevent a grotesque marriage between “study drugs” and academic success. Doctors should screen patients rigorously before diagnosing ADHD and consider prescribing non-abusable alternatives like Wellbutrin. Other proposals are cognitive behavioural therapy and the development of coping mechanisms for less severe cases. When medications are necessary, the lowest effective dose should be prescribed and dispensed sparingly. This allows pharmacists to detect if a patient is potentially abusing their own medication or selling pills.
Education and healthcare are both pillars of an equitable and civilized society. Finding a balance between treating students with conditions like ADHD and protecting others from medications they don’t need is a delicate task. Multiple parties working in tandem can find a solution to this epidemic growing within our universities.
Graphic by Ana Bilokin