1. Home
  2. »
  3. College Resource Center
  4. »
  5. Dangers of Study Drugs in College

Dangers of Study Drugs in College A Look at the Effects of Prescription Stimulants & Healthy Alternatives

College can leave students feeling overwhelmed and overworked. When distractions compete with the stress and fear of failing in college, students may turn to study drugs–misused prescription stimulants–to help them get through their work. However, study drugs aren’t the miracle drugs they are sometimes made out to be. Between their risks, side effects and dubious efficacy, it may be surprising that one in five college students have admitted to abusing prescription stimulants. Before students ask around campus for a dose of Adderall or Ritalin, they should learn about why study drugs aren’t the best idea and what other options exist to help them take on their school work in a safe and healthy way.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Sal Raichbach Addiction psychiatrist

Written By:

FAQ: Understanding Study Drugs in College

Study drugs tend to be less stigmatized on college campuses than other drugs, despite the risks they pose. Students often think study drugs are safe because they are prescribed by doctors, but abuse and dependence on prescription stimulants effects college students across the country, and many students use study drugs without knowing much about them. It’s important for students to understand what they are dealing with before they start relying on study drugs to get through college.

What are study drugs?

Study drugs, also referred to as smart drugs, neuro enhancers, cognitive enhancers and nootropics, are prescription stimulants intended to treat ADD, ADHD and narcolepsy. These drugs have had a colorful history and have been misused by a wide range of people, like war veterans, artists, housewives and students. Students use these prescription drugs to help them focus on tasks, like studying or finishing assignments, and maximize their time spent doing schoolwork.

Are study drugs illegal?

Study drugs are not inherently illegal. These medications were developed to treat common conditions related to mental function, and when used as prescribed by those who need them, they are legal and useful. However, selling or giving away prescription stimulants is illegal, as is possessing somebody else’s prescription. Even people who have a prescription can abuse the drug and potentially get into some trouble. For instance, a student’s doctor may investigate why the student is requiring pills at a higher frequency than prescribed and may refuse to refill the prescription, as they can get in trouble for risking their patient’s health.

How many college students are turning to study drugs?

People between 18 and 25 years old use stimulants as significantly higher rates than any other age group. (Source)

College students overestimate how many of their peers use study drugs. Students estimate 33.6 percent of their peers use prescription stimulants, when usage is closer to 18.6 percent. (Source)

Despite research indicating that use of study drugs does not have a significant positive impact on their GPA, 28.6 percent of college students agree or strongly agree that study drugs will improve their grades. (Source; Source)

Why are students using study drugs?

Students use study drugs primarily for their perceived mind-enhancing effects. According to the College Prescription Drug Study at Ohio State University, 85 percent of students who took prescription stimulants did so to study or improve their grades. When deadlines are tight or the number of assignments they have seem insurmountable, students may use study drugs to increase alertness, focus and motivation. The same study found that 26 percent of students tried study drugs just to see what they were like. Prescription stimulants are also known for their euphoric highs, which can be similar to those of cocaine. Appetite suppression is a common side effect of study drugs, so students may also choose to use them to lose weight.

What are common study drugs amongst college students?

Most of the drugs students commonly used to help them in school are Schedule II controlled substances. This means that, while the drugs are recognized to have medical benefits, they have high potential for abuse and addiction and must be heavily regulated.

Adderall

Adderall is one of the most widely used prescription stimulants among college students. It’s an amphetamine that increases the release of dopamine in users. College students commonly use Adderall to get through midterms, finals and other major school assignments. Students also use the drug to lose weight, increase athletic performance and get high.

Adderall is intended to treat ADHD and narcolepsy and can be effective when used as prescribed.

Ritalin is a methylphenidate drug that was developed to treat low blood pressure and, prior to the 1960s, was used to treat depression, narcolepsy, lethargy and senility. Today, Ritalin is predominantly prescribed to treat ADHD, as the drug’s release of dopamine and norepinephrine help increase energy and focus. This is also why students commonly turn to Ritalin for help studying and staying focused in class. However, prolonged use by those without ADHD can cause changes in brain chemistry, leading to increased risky behavior and disruptive sleep patterns. Like Adderall, Ritalin has high risk of misuse and withdrawal symptoms.

Under the supervision of doctors, Ritalin has been successfully used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.

Concerta is another methylphenidate, but it has a longer release than Ritalin. Students may use it to help with prolonged study, lose weight or get high. Especially when snorted or taken intravenously, Concerta can have psychological and physical effects similar to meth.

Those with ADHD or narcolepsy may opt to take Concerta instead of Ritalin, because the drug’s long-lasting effect generally means patients only need one dose per day.

These dexmethylphenidate drugs are similar to Ritalin and Concerta. Because of its slightly different chemical structure, a smaller dose of Focalin can be used to achieve the same effect as a higher dose or Ritalin. Developed in the early 2000s, Focalin is a fairly new drug. Students use it to help them focus on school work, but may also use it to get high, as the physical effects can be similar to cocaine. Abusers often crush and snort Focalin. Coming down from Focalin can be rough, and students may experience anxiety, depression and other physical and psychological symptoms.

Focalin can be taken orally by those with ADHD or narcolepsy, only when prescribed by a doctor. Focalin can worsen tension and anxiety, and students who take anxiety medications or hope to counteract Focalin’s comedown with anxiety medications put themselves at high health risk.

Dexedrine, also sold as Dextrostat, is a dextroamphetamine. It is less commonly prescribed than other amphetamines, but like Adderall, it can be used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, and can be abused by students after the drug’s stimulating properties. Students may perceive Dexedrine as a safe way to boost their focus and maximize their productivity, but because the drug manipulates the brain’s reward system–students feel good when they take the drug and bad when they don’t–it has a high risk of dependency.

Dexedrine should only be taken as directed by a doctor to treat ADHD or narcolepsy. Dosage should be carefully monitored, as long-term use is not recommended, and tolerance to Dexedrine can build quickly.

Vyvanse is the newest FDA-approved ADHD treatment drug available in the US. It’s a lisdexamfetamine, which was developed as an alternative to amphetamine with longer lasting effects and lower risk of dependency. It has also been approved to treat binge eating disorders because of its appetite suppressing effects. Students may use Vyvanse to lose weight, increase their focus in class or when studying, boost their energy or get high.

Vyvanse has a lower risk of dependency because it remains inactive until it is metabolized in the body, and it releases very slowly. The free form of the stimulant also cannot be activated by crushing the drug. This shouldn’t give students a false sense of security, however; Vyvanse is still a controlled substance and should only be used as prescribed for ADHD or binge eating disorder.

Provigil is the brand name for a drug called modafinil, which is used to treat narcolepsy and sleep apnea. It promotes wakefulness, so students may use it to help them get more hours out of the day and focus in class. However, very few studies have been done to test the long-term effects of prolonged modafinil use, and doctors warn that the drug could have adverse effects. The sleeplessness that modafinil causes can have physical drawbacks and, as some students report, can keep them from getting necessary rest before big exams.

Despite its increasing popularity among students and professionals alike, not much is known about the unanticipated and long-term effects of Provigil. Use should be monitored by a doctor.

Is abuse of prescription medications as dangerous as other forms of illegal drug use?

Prescription medications, including study drugs, can have just as significant impacts on people as other types of drugs. People who aren’t using prescriptions as intended to treat specific conditions not only risk legal trouble, but put their health in jeopardy, too. Very little research has been done on the side effects and risks of prescription stimulant use by those who are not treating a specific condition, like narcolepsy or ADHD, so significant danger lies in the unknowns.

Study drugs are undoubtedly dangerous and addictive if not taken responsibly. It is possible to overdose on stimulants, especially when mixing them with alcohol and party drugs. The interaction between study drugs and other intoxicants can cause heart issues, paranoia, vomiting and other symptoms.

Dr. Sal Raichbach

How Study Drugs Impact Learning & College Success

Study drugs may seem like just the thing to help students positively impact their academics. After all, completing assignments and increasing productivity can only help students boost their grades, right? The negative side of study drugs, however, usually outweigh the benefits students may see, and since little is known about the effects of these drugs when used improperly, students take on a lot of unknown risk, too. Here are some of the side effects students can experience:

The crash

Because study drugs increase students’ dopamine levels when in use, they can experience huge crashes as soon as they stop taking the drug. Students have reported falling asleep during the exams they took the drugs to study for in the first place. Others have described feeling hopeless, depressed, anxious, paranoid and exhausted. The inevitable crash requires students to continue using the drug until they’ve met all their goals and deadlines, which can increase risk of dependency.

Study drugs can cause students have extreme mood swings caused by the sudden changes in brain chemistry and hormone release. Sometimes people can have the opposite experience and, instead of fluxing moods, have muted, robotic emotions.

Students are at risk of developing dependence on study drugs because of the regular, continued stress of being in college and the rewarding effects the drugs have on the brain. Coming down from study drugs can be extremely difficult, and it’s easy to continue use of the drugs to cope with or avoid crashing. It doesn’t take long for students to rely on study drugs to get through each day.

Drug addiction is a huge problem with young people in our country, and once the party and studying lifestyle is over, these behaviors tend to continue into adulthood.

Dr. Sal Raichbach

Much of what draws students to study drugs is the wakefulness they can experience. However, study drugs can drastically alter students’ sleep schedules and ability to get good rest. Students already tend to get insufficient sleep, which heavily impacts academic performance. A study published in June 2017 found that irregular sleep schedules negatively impact student academic performance. So even though they think they’re doing it to enhance their grades, the erratic sleep schedules study drugs cause can have long-term negative effects on academics. Plus, night after night of poor sleep encourages continued use of study drugs, which can easily lead to dependence.

These are a few common psychological effects of using study drugs, and prescriptions often warn that common ADHD medications can worsen these symptoms in people who already experience them. These medications are also generally not to be used in conjunction with anxiety and depression medications, so students who use medications like Xanax put themselves at high health risk when using study drugs.

Study drugs can have a huge impact on a student’s digestive system. Various study drugs cite nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and digestive issues among their drawbacks. Other physical symptoms can include dizziness, fatigue, headache and changes in sex drive.

Stomach upset might not be a huge detractor for many students, but heart issues can arise from study drug use. Students can experience heart palpitations the first time they use study drugs, and regular use can lead to more severe issues. Risk of heart attack increases when alcohol and other drugs are added to the mix.

There is a high demand for study drugs on college campuses, which means students can end up paying high prices for a single pill. When the desperation to get more Adderall or Dexedrine sets in, students can tear through their savings to make sure they’ve got a steady supply on hand.

Study drugs can easily become top priority for college students, causing their friends to feel snubbed or annoyed. Further, the changes in mood and behavior caused by study drugs can make a student’s friends want to get a little distance. When students miss out on social events because they’ve fallen asleep for a day, or they put too much pressure on their friends to sell their prescriptions, their friends may have no choice but to find someone new to hang with.

From the Expert: Why Students Are Pressured to Sell Their Prescriptions

According to a survey conducted across multiple colleges, around 83 percent of students who use prescription stimulants got the drugs from their friends. Dr. Sal Raichbach, an addiction psychiatrist at Ambrosia Treatment Center in Florida, shares his insights as to why study drugs are so easy to find on campus and why students are selling their prescriptions.

It seems like many students have negative reactions to study drugs, or the desired effect of the drug doesn’t align with the actual result. Yet tons of college students claim to have used study drugs. Why are they so prevalent in college?

Study drugs, like Ritalin, Vyvanse and Adderall, are typically prescribed for ADD and ADHD. However, for those without ADD and ADHD, they provide a stimulating effect, allowing them to focus on schoolwork and keep them awake for long periods of time. While they aren’t as stigmatized as a drug like methamphetamine, they have similar psychological effects, and as a result, can have similar consequences.

One pattern we see is that college students and others end up using these drugs recreationally as well as to study. Stimulants have an “upper” effect, that can be euphoric and allow students to stay awake longer while partying.

Many students actually need their prescriptions to treat ADD and other conditions, but they are willing to sell their meds to classmates. Why do students sell their prescriptions?

Students who actually need their ADD or ADHD medication can certainly feel peer pressure to sell or give away their prescriptions to others. College students who are in a new environment are constantly meeting new people and making friends, so they might use their prescriptions to leverage a friendship. Not only selling study drugs put these medications in the wrong hands but compromises the individual who needs these medications and isn’t taking them as prescribed. Their ADD or ADHD symptoms will likely return, potentially damaging their grades and their mental well-being.

What are some of the perceived benefits of selling study drugs? What risks to students who sell their prescriptions face?

The risks of selling study drugs far outweigh the benefits. These medications are Schedule II controlled substances, so selling them is legally equivalent to selling cocaine and meth. Even simple possession of these substances without a prescription can get you into trouble. Fines, jail time and getting kicked out of college are definitely not worth the few extra dollars someone might make from selling their prescription.

How does the selling of study drugs affect campus culture?

Selling drugs certainly effects campus culture. When drug abuse becomes normalized and overlooked by other students, professors and school administration, it sends a message to other students that criminal behavior is tolerated. Other street drugs like cocaine and ecstasy certainly have a presence on college campuses across the county. The use of prescription stimulants for studying could potentially be a gateway to other, harder drugs.

Spotting the Difference: When Drug Use Becomes Abuse

The medications students use to improve their academic performance aren’t inherently bad. They only become problems when students abuse them rather than use them properly with the guidance of a doctor. These guidelines can help students track whether they or their friends are using prescription stimulants safely, or whether they are at risk of abuse and dependence.

Proper Use of Prescription Study Drugs

  • Taking the prescribed amount at regular intervals, as instructed by a doctor.

  • Using the drug at a doctor’s recommendation to treat ADD, ADHD, narcolepsy or other issues.

  • Taking the pills orally, or as instructed by a doctor.

  • Only using drugs prescribed specifically for them, and as prescribed.

  • Users see improvement in the condition being treated, like a decrease in hyperactivity or an increase in alertness.

  • Physical side effects match those labelled on the prescription and discussed with a doctor. If side effects become severe, the patient seeks guidance from their physician.

  • Use of the drug assists in successful daily function, but users are not dependent on the drug.

  • Prescription use is part of a daily routine, so sleep schedules do not have drastic changes.

  • Users are better able to balance day-to-day activities and social events.

  • Consistent budgeting and/or insurance cover the cost of prescriptions.

Warning Signs of Abuse and Addiction

  • Taking more than the prescribed dose, or taking doses more frequently than prescribed

  • Using the drug for reasons other than the prescribed intent, such as increased academic performance or weight control

  • Taking the drug in an unconventional way, such as snorting.

  • Using drugs without a prescription.

  • Users experience changes in mood or behavior, like high energy, aggression, irritability, extreme reactions or paranoia.

  • Physical symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, dry mouth, dilated pupils, rapid breathing, weight loss or decreased appetite occur and may go ignored.

  • Users are unable to get through the day without taking the drug, and there is a desperation to get more of the drug.

  • Users experience high amounts of sleep. This is often part of crashing.

  • Users tend to miss out on social events and other activities.

  • Users run out of money quickly.

Signs of study drug abuse include being excited, talkative, energetic and hyper-focused. However, the opposite can occur as well when the individual runs out of medication. These symptoms would include fatigue, irritability, depression and anxiety. Additionally, the classic behavioral signs of addiction can be present, such as financial issues, preoccupation with getting and taking the drugs and sneaky or secretive behaviors.

Dr. Sal Raichbach
Where to find help:

Counseling department. Most colleges have counseling services students can use, and many have services specific to substance use and abuse. For instance, Notre Dame’s counseling center assesses a student’s substance use behavior for a few sessions before moving forward with appropriate treatment and referrals.

Health center. Campus health centers, like the ones at Arizona State University, can be great resources for students looking for information on safe prescription use. Health specialists can also provide referrals for specialized substance abuse treatment.

Residence Life office. A school’s residence life department should be able to provide students with guidance and resources if they don’t know where they can go for help.

A trusted professor, mentor or advisor. It’s often easier to talk about substance abuse problems with someone trusted. A confidant familiar with the school or academic pressures can help students find recovery solutions and provide support.

Collegiate Recovery Programs. Schools around the country have implemented collegiate recovery programs to help students get and stay sober without having to leave school. Programs can include counseling, group activities, clubs, housing options and more.

Sober Greek Life and sober dorms. Some schools offer on-campus housing solutions for students dealing with substance abuse. For instance, Rutgers Recovery Housing is part of the school’s alcohol and drug assistance program and provides students a discreet sober living option with counseling services. Students can also look for sober fraternities and sororities to be part of an on-campus community with support and social activities built in.

Rehabilitation centers. Sometimes students need to get away from school and the pressures of college life to stop abusing study drugs. Rehabilitation centers provide counseling, medical assistance and guidance to help students safely get off drugs. Rehab search tools, like the one from AddictionCenter, can help students find a center that works for them.

SAMHSA Helpline. This national helpline provides 24-hour access to treatment and referral information to those with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Church. Students who go to church or have a spiritual support group can seek guidance and support.

Local hospital or health center. Students who don’t have access to a health center on campus or aren’t comfortable seeking assistance there can find an off-campus medical center to get advice and information about their prescription abuse.

Students who need help with a substance abuse problem or who have a friend who needs help can get more information and resources on dealing with substance abuse in college here.

Combatting Substance Abuse in College

Sober Success in College: Healthy Alternatives to Study Drugs

Study drugs are not the only ways students can enhance their academic performance and get through everything they need to do. In fact, many students say that the effects of study drugs aren’t any different from healthier options, like a few cups of coffee. Student success and health can be managed with a little preparation and without the aid of prescription stimulants.

Lifestyle Tips for Sober Success
  • Balanced diet. Eating well and making sure to get their fair share of vitamins, proteins and other essential nutrients can help students stay focused and energized throughout the day.

  • Yoga and meditation. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in college, which can make even simple tasks feel impossible. Taking time to decompress, calm down and focus is a healthy way to mentally and physically reset before dealing with academic obligations.

  • Time-Management. Effective time management can mitigate a ton of stress and ensure students have enough time for homework and studying without sacrificing social and personal time. Students can try blocking out specific chunks of study time each day and adjust in advance for big projects or exams.

  • Time management skills can go a long way to help students use their time wisely. When it comes to time management, your phone is your best friend. Set reminders to stop looking at social media and put appointments and due dates in your calendar with alerts. Using these tools, students can maximize their productivity without the use of study drugs.

    Dr. Sal Raichbach
  • Exercise. Exercise gives students energy, promotes necessary blood flow to the brain and provides a nice break from study-induced mental fatigue.

  • Counseling or advising. Meeting regularly with a counselor can help students keep their stress in check and resolve issues before they become big problems.

  • Good, regular sleep. Lack of sleep can have tons of negative effects on students’ cognitive function, including their ability to focus, recall information and solve problems. Poor sleep can also affect students’ mental health, so making sure to regularly get enough sleep can keep stress, anxiety and depression at bay, too.

  • One of the best ways to improve focus and attention is to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep is incredibly underrated, and the experts recommend college-age students get at least 8 hours per night, even more, if possible.

    Dr. Sal Raichbach
Alternatives to Study Drugs
  • B Vitamins. These vitamins are essential in maintaining healthy metabolism and brain function. There are eight B vitamins that work together to, among other things, provide the body with a boost of energy from breaking down fats and carbohydrates.

  • Ginseng. Ginseng is a tuberous plant that has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. While evidence of its efficacy as a stimulant in Western medicine is lacking, many people note ginseng for its ability to boost short-term memory.

  • Caffeine. Many study drug users are disappointed to find that the effect of their drug is like having a few shots of espresso. The milk from a latte can amplify the espresso’s effect by providing a bit of protein, too. Students who aren’t coffee fans can try a yerba mate latte, instead. Yerba mate is a highly caffeinated plant that, when brewed like tea, can provide a tasty pick-me-up, often without the jitters that can come with coffee.

  • A cold shower. It may not be as inviting as a hot drink, but a cold shower can wake students out of the worst study stupors. Warm up with some coffee and power through that essay.