Tampa, Florida -- Getting through college isn't easy. The classes and endless hours of studying put a lot of students under intense pressure. Increasingly, though, some students are turning to pills to help them manage all the stress, and pass the exams.
"You don't have to expose yourself to stimulants in order to improve your concentration and your ability to function in school," said USF Health neuropsychiatrist Dr. Gabriel de Erauquin, PhD.
But stimulants, like Adderall and Ritalin, do help some students --those who suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The medication can help them sustain attention and concentration. And the same effects often show up in people without ADHD.
Center for Disease Control: ADHD
"They may provide some advantage in learning, particularly in what's known as declarative material text," said de Erausquin.
On college campuses, especially around finals time, the pills can become a hot commodity. Last December during finals, a quick check of Twitter found dozens of mentions of Adderall, and it appeared most weren't by students who actually had ADHD.
"Just took my final with zero hours of sleep ..." tweeted one young man. "But I feel great thanks too (sic) #adderall."
"I just pray to god I can make it through this finals week," was another tweet. "#adderall is my only hope."
"Can someone with ADHD help a brother out for finals week?" was a common question.
"You can get upwards of $20 a pill, I've heard," said Nicholas Joyce, PhD from USF's Counseling Center. "Especially around finals time. Because students think, 'Oh well, I really need to get a good grade. I've been slacking off all semester. Let me do this and I can pull an all-nighter and focus and get that information.'"
But drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, when they're not prescribed and not monitored, can have serious side effects. Florida Poison Control says between Jan. 2011 and Dec. 2013, they received 174 calls about common ADHD drugs. Nearly all of the cases, 91%, ended up with someone going to the hospital, suffering symptoms like chest pain, delusions, strokes, kidney damage, and comas.
The pills can also lead to dependency.
"If you learn with your brain on drugs," said Dr. de Erausquin, "when you intend to recall that information back, you have to be on drugs. Otherwise you don't recall anything."
"Taking a pill is not going to solve your problems," adds Joyce. "It's not going to make you smarter. It's not going to create a longstanding skill that you're going to need to deal with boring things."
Joyce recommends students work on skills to help them better concentrate: getting into a schedule by setting aside time to study and cutting out any distractions during the study time.
USF's Counseling Center offers workshops to teach students how to manage their stress and time with techniques like relaxation and meditation.
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