LEAD FEATURES EDITOR
with JAMES MALIN
Stop shaking your leg.” Caught by surprise, the student snapped out of focus, looked at his friend obliviously and replied, “What?”
The student, too deeply engaged in his English class’s Harkness discussion to realize what he had been doing for the past few minutes, was tapping his foot uncontrollably against the table. He was unusually focused on what people were saying. He was no longer looking at his peers blankly, but rather truly understanding what they were talking about. A couple of hours earlier, as he was going through his morning routine, he took a Ritalin pill, a central nervous system stimulant used to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He did not have a prescription.
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration lists prescription stimulants like Adderall, Vyvanse and Ritalin as Class 2 controlled substances, the same level as cocaine and morphine, because they rank among the most addictive substances that have a medical use. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, in his recent column “The Competition Drug,” wrote that, “Adderall has become to college what steroids are to baseball: An illicit performance enhancer for a fiercely competitive environment.” Research shows 10 percent of U.K. students admit to taking “cognitive-enhancing” drugs to help them concentrate, stay up late and complete deadlines on time; this number rises to 16 percent among U.S. students, according to the Huffington Post.
The two ASL students first came across prescription drugs like these in very different scenarios. The first student, who needed his friend to snap him out of his period of intense concentration, first bought an academically performance enhancing drug at Top Orange from another High School student earlier this school year. “I bought one pill of Vyvanse for £5. I made the exchange at Top Orange and popped it in the bathroom,” he said.
The second student, who has illegally taken Adderall around ten times, receives his supply from a sibling.
The first student’s original motive to try a stimulant like Vyvanse was a combination of curiosity and pressure from himself to succeed. “I just wanted to see what it would be like and if it would make things better, and it did. I didn’t feel any pressure from my parents, but more pressure from myself to stay up to speed with everyone and do well academically,” he said.
Health Teacher Joy Marchese sympathized with the afflicted student. “I think that the pressure on students to be perfect and achieve very high grades needs to be addressed,” she said. “There are a lot of these students using this drug that are striving for perfectionism or striving for excellence and they can never achieve it because they will always want to move up.”
After taking Vyvanse, the student found himself “super focused” and saw everything with “complete clarity.” He estimated an academic improvement of a whole letter grade on a test (e.g.: a C+ without the pill to a B or B+ with the pill). After benefiting from the positive effects of Vyvanse, the student bought Ritalin from a friend outside of school, which he began using this academic year.
Fearful of the addictive qualities that come with the drug, the student has been cautious to avoid taking the drug on a regular basis. Also aware of the common side effects of the drug, including insomnia, lack of appetite and stomach aches, he remains careful to use the drug sparingly. However, the student plans to begin taking the medication again in preparation for finals in the spring.
Marchese is apprehensive that students struggle to see that those who are not diagnosed with ADHD or ADD do not need the medication and taking the medication unprescribed could actually result in more harmful long-term effects than positive ones. “The drug is addictive, and their body doesn’t actually need it. When someone is prescribed Adderall or Ritalin, it’s because the chemicals in their body are different,” she said. “They need that drug to balance out the chemicals. When you don’t have that chemical imbalance and put that drug into your body, it changes what is happening in your body.” Marchese said that for those who are not diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, the positive short-term effects are significantly outweighed by the negative long-term effects.
Ilay Sheves (’16) began taking Ritalin at the start of eighth grade after being diagnosed with ADHD. Sheves noticed a similar improvement in academic performance, as his grades improved from high “C”s and low “B”s to high “B”s and low “A”s after taking the medication. Since taking Ritalin on a regular basis, Sheves has experienced many of the common side effects, especially insomnia. “I try and sleep but I don’t sleep because my brain just tells me, ‘Work, work, work,’” he said.
Sheves said that this drastic change in his grades would not have been possible without Ritalin, and described the drug as giving him “laser focus and instant recall.” These benefits, at least for Sheves, have a concrete reward and outweigh the adverse side-effects. “You notice the side effects but the benefits are very strong. It’s worth not being able to sleep well if you get an ‘A’ on a math test,” he said.
While Sheves finds it easy to look past the adverse effects of Ritalin, Sam Evans (’15) has grown to abhor his medication, Adderall, which he began taking in the eighth grade after being diagnosed with ADD. “I actually hate taking it because it dulls my mind. I sort of lose my creative spark,” he said.
Evans compared himself to “those crazy people in movies who are always saying a million things at once. That’s what I’m like when I’m not on Adderall. I’m always thinking of new things.”
Despite losing his creative instincts when he uses Adderall, Evans praised the medication for helping him focus on material he has no interest in. “The reason I think it’s worth it in school is because I’m learning about things I don’t really care for, and taking Adderall helps me focus in on those sort of things,” he said.
Additionally, Evans is not bothered by students without prescriptions taking medication like Adderall. “My grades are my grades and their grades are their grades,” he said.
In fact, during his first year at summer naval school, Evans sold about six-weeks worth of his medication that he deemed superfluous to one of his peers. “I brought the medication because I didn’t know if I was going to need it or not. After the first couple of days I realized I didn’t and one of the upper classmen bought it from me,” he said. “Apparently you can get high off it, but I didn’t know that. I thought, ‘Yeah, sure’ because I was just going to throw it away anyway. I didn’t really care.”
On the other hand, Sheves sees illegal usage of academically performance enhancing drugs as an unfair advantage to people who aren’t diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. “Without a prescription, it is unfair [for people] to take a drug like Ritalin because they have never been diagnosed with the disorder. They must be tested by a doctor first,” he said.
The first student doesn’t view the abuse of prescription drugs as cheating, but rather a way to compensate for some teachers’ inability to teach. “The academic environment at ASL is obviously very hard and intense, but sometimes the teachers don’t teach you well enough for the tests they give you. If they can’t teach me, then why should my GPA suffer?” he said.
He was also adamant that taking Ritalin is not cheating because it doesn’t give the student any new knowledge; it is only aiding you in the recall of information. Additionally, he said that the usage of unprescribed drugs is ethically acceptable. “I take it with a clear moral conscience. It really is just like stronger coffee in a way,” he said.
However, Marchese was resolute that students taking these medications without prescriptions are cheating. She sees it as a shortcut and an unfair advantage in improving students’ grades. “What about all the other students that are not taking this pill that are working their butt off to perform and to do well? Some of them aren’t achieving what they wanted but they’re working really hard for it. Is it an unfair advantage? I think so. I see it as the easy way out. I see it as cheating,” she said.
Dean of Students Joe Chodl primarily sees taking medications like Adderall or Ritalin unprescribed as substance abuse. “Taking prescribed drugs when they’re not yours or not prescribed is illegal,” he said.
Chodl has never encountered any problems with prescription drug abuse during his time at ASL. “I have never had any issues about this in my whole tenure at ASL, and the Student-Faculty Disciplinary Board has never encountered a case involving prescription drug abuse,” he said.
Because of this, Chodl is unsure how students abusing prescription drugs would be punished because the SFDB operates on a case-by-case basis.
The first student is aware of the rise in illegal use of these prescription drugs, and anticipates that the availability of these medications will decrease in the long-term. “I think in five years it will be a lot harder to get because of what has been happening. I know of about two or three people in my grade who do it, but there are probably more who have done it but just don’t talk about it,” he said. Amid these concerns that some students are “cheating” by taking pills to improve their results, students around the world could face compulsory drug testing around exam time, according to the Huffington Post.
While the first student has no plans of getting tested for ADD or ADHD because he knows he would not be diagnosed with either, the second student, who began taking Adderall unprescribed last April, plans on getting tested in the near future. This student was keen to point out the negative effects of Adderall, which, along with limited access to the medication, have stopped him from more frequent usage. “When you take it, you feel sad. You kind of shiver. But when you finish a session on them and you look at all the work you’ve done, you say, ‘Wow, that was awesome,’” he said.
He praised the medication’s ability to block out distractions and described it as a performance enhancer. “Whenever I have too much work or I can’t focus, it’s easy to just take a pill. You finish all your work quickly and it motivates you to finish it all,” he said. “It doesn’t make you smarter or anything, it just focuses you so you get everything done so much faster.”
Cautious about becoming addicted or dependent on the medication, the student only uses Adderall when he feels he really needs to. “I haven’t used the medication more frequently because I’m afraid that I’d become addicted. I’m doing okay without it, so I only use it when I’m in dire need of it,” he said.
For example, he explained that rather than staying up until 4 a.m. to write a paper, he could complete the assignment in two hours. “It’s not pleasurable taking it, it’s not a high. You take it to get your work done. You don’t take it for anything else,” he said.
This student has found Adderall to be most effective when used in conjunction with studying. “It’s preparation. Taking it the day of won’t make you remember everything. If I forgot a lot of things I wouldn’t suddenly remember everything when I took the test,” he said. “It’s not a miracle drug, it just focuses you.”
He also described Adderall as “a dying medication,” referring to its potential to be abused by students like him. However, Marchese sees the abuse of these prescription drugs on the rise. “I think it’s a growing issue, certainly in universities, and it has definitely trickled down to the high school level. I don’t know the exact amount of usage in high school students but I certainly know that in very high academic and high pressure schools it is a growing problem,” she said.
The illegal usage of prescription medication presents dangerous risks of dependence and addiction. The increasing prevalence of this in universities, which is now being replicated at the high school level, is highlighted by cases of addiction leading to depression and eventual suicide.
In a moment of hindsight, the second student, who is being tested for ADD and ADHD in the near future, reflected on his abuse of Adderall. “I should’ve waited to be prescribed before I took it because I didn’t really know that much. I could’ve died or something,” he said. “I wish I had never taken the medication. It was a massive risk and I didn’t think it through properly.”
Ian Scoville contributed to reporting.