Consuming Intelligence: The "Study Stimulant" Problem on Campus


Consuming stimulants to quickly gain energy and become more effective at work is commonplace for young people. However, enjoying a few too many lattes in a given day is very different from crossing the boundary to illicit stimulants. Students are particularly prone to such consumption. Although the precise number of individuals who misuse prescription stimulants for educational purposes is unknown, “study drugs” are becoming more and more commonplace as students feel the pressure to succeed academically. As such, mental health practitioners and university officials must join efforts to provide students with sufficient mental health services to prevent them from being lured onto the dangerous path to drug dependency. Additionally, society needs to reevaluate the strength of the pharmaceutical industry in providing health care towards young people.

The “study drugs” most commonly abused are stimulants that are generally prescribed to individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, and narcolepsy. These prescription medications increase alertness and give students the ability to focus for much longer than otherwise possible. Ritalin and Adderall are just two of the prescription drugs that are often consumed by otherwise law-abiding, high-achieving students. The International Narcotics Control Board states that one out of 10 American teenagers has used prescription stimulants without a doctor's prescription. According to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 6% of Americans aged 18-25 use prescription medications for non-medical purposes.

Prescription medications, however, do have unintended consequences, such as chemical dependence and eventual addiction. Generally, such medications are prescribed based on the height, weight, and severity of illness which could impact others with a different medical history in a much more dangerous manner. The second issue of prescription drugs is rooted in morality. As we do not allow athletes to consume steroids to enhance performance, the use of prescription medication for academic success seems to pose a double standard. The enforcement of drug testing before writing a final exam or paper is implausible. Instead, access to mental health services within an academic environment can make the difference for students. In contrast to the traditional abstinence-focused method, access to peer-led substance abuse prevention programs and social networking tools may be viable alternatives to discourage drug abuse. It is not unheard of for young students to engage in teenage drug abuse by taking stimulants when studying.

Lastly, the abuse of prescription medication not only has physiological and ethical implications, but reflects the new view that health is a commodity that can be bought and sold, rather than a service to humanity. The pharmaceutical industry spends twice as much on advertising as it does on the research and development of new drugs which might ease human suffering. From sadness to social anxiety, prescription medications are unfairly touted as the principal solution to all problems. In this respect, it becomes easier to see why students are turning to prescription drugs as a method of consuming intelligence.

There has been a significant shift from deference to the healthcare professional to autonomy of the consumer to make his/her own decisions, which proves to be problematic in the regulation of prescription drugs. The problem is two-fold because physicians do not have access to a strong diagnostic model for the prescription of stimulant drugs which leaves excessive room for patient discretion and misinformation. Also, increased public awareness and acceptance of the aforementioned medical conditions has led medical associations to recommend stimulant drugs as the primary course of treatment, which further leads to the over-prescription of drugs. Such market mechanisms make the supply of illicit prescription drugs rampant, and the demand high, across campuses in a number of countries.

It seems as though we are all in pursuit of quick-fixes to attain super-human traits from intelligence to beauty to athletic ability. However, life is more than just a glorified race.

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