Nathaniel Imel: School Makes Students Get High

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“For four hours, I didn’t want to look up from my desk.”

Narrating for me one of her first experiences with Ritalin, one student at UCSD explained to me why since junior year of high school, she had been non-medically taking Adderall, Ritalin, and similar ADHD prescription medications from her friends to help her keep up with schoolwork.

“It works super well, and I loved it, to be honest. I can see why it’s basically speed… you feel fast, confident, smart, and full of energy at the same time.” The first time she tried Ritalin, she got it from a friend with a prescription.

A second student described his experience with study drugs, which was much darker. “I bought a week’s worth of Adderall and Vyvanse. It was about eight pills. I took them during my exams in the day and at night…but I lost a lot of weight after that because I couldn’t eat, and I had to force myself to drink bottles of water. The comedown sucked too…I got nauseous, and got migraines and got sick…I even had hallucinations one night because I had been up for five days.”

Adderall is a mix of amphetamine salts, and is often prescribed by doctors as the first-line pharmacotherapy for ADHD. It has high potential for abuse and for psychological and physical dependency. For students without ADHD, it can be a cheap, effective, and euphoric way to make grades. Study drugs, after hearing the stories of these students, seem to be effective, but quite frightening. The use of Adderall as an effective, rigorous, and dangerous response to large challenges struck me familiarly; I was reminded of the complicated and often subtle, violent ways our modern education system imposes order on students.

I asked the second student I interviewed, a Biochem/Cell Bio major, what he thought Adderall or Ritalin study-drug usage would look like in the future for college campuses. “People will use it more. [Right now] the amount of work I have to do is ridiculous. And college is getting harder to get into, and the economy is making it harder to stand out with just a degree without an internship or something [similar].”

What bothered me about the two interviews I conducted, and this convenience data a group of psychologists collected a few years ago, was the disregard for and absence of knowledge about, the adverse health effects of Adderall abuse. In the mentioned study, most of the students didn’t know amphetamines could damage the brain at all, much less that the medication contained them. Some even championed the pills for causing a loss of appetite.

Fortunately, both the UCSD students I interviewed seemed to be at least somewhat aware of Adderall’s addictive potential, and of its effects on appetite and short-term depression, known as the “comedown.” Yet, they expressed little remorse for their usage—for them, Adderall seemed to be just another tough but necessary part of the college experience, in which we’re pushed hard but rarely encouraged to question the means to our ends.

An increasingly competitive job market for college graduates means students often have to take on internships, go to graduate school, and acquire more resume items to get employed in their chosen fields. At my own high school, too, most of my peers balanced internships, sports, clubs, volunteering, student government, Advanced Placement classes, SAT tutoring, and other extra items to compete for spots at the schools they wanted. This high-stakes atmosphere in education is also beginning to permeate grade school. Elementary school children have less recess—less unstructured time to relax and play—and much more homework than their parents did.

The immense pressure and overwhelming workloads students have today are products of a changing standard in America in which we seem to be commodifying our education. Students must compete with each other to exceed mandated criteria, or be denied middle-class livelihood. The rise of ADHD itself in recent decades may point towards this. An intriguing article by The New York Times posits that the increase of ADHD diagnoses in the last thirty years could potentially be being caused by the federal incentivizing of standardized-test scores and lenient regulations on drug company marketing.

This isn’t to say that the increase in diagnoses itself has been a bad thing; ADHD is real, and people who stand to benefit from pharmacotherapy should have access to treatment. The point is, however, that our schools, our government, and our economy have over the years worked together to ‘standardize’ students so they can have more competitive education careers.

On a separate cultural level, shifting narratives about drugs over the years may be at work in the rise of study drugs. Perhaps backlash at the failure of The War on Drugs has granted more tolerance to casual drug use, which would have significant impact for Adderall, widely considered an ‘academic drug.’ On many campuses, it’s morally acceptable, often caught up in rationalizations about hard work.

Prompted by the same competitive structures of education that recognized the ‘ADHD epidemic,’, many of us, in painful irony, have begun to turn to using Adderall just to keep up with our own huge workloads. In the efforts to help students achieve more on a larger scale, room has  been created for mental health to deteriorate.

Because of this, it’s important in college that we look for ways to be there for each other. We are living under an incredibly powerful and regimented system intended to standardize all of us, pit us against each other, and punish us when we do not ‘meet expectations.’ Societal progress shouldn’t require any of us to take watered-down speed, and no economy should force its young people to gamble with the future of their mental health. A careful evaluation of cultural dynamics is in order, especially here at UCSD. Whether it’s living with a disorder, struggling with the pressure when finals come around, or battling alienation, we need to be there for our fellow Tritons.

Nathaniel Imel is a first year student at UCSD studying Literature.

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