The Study Buddy: Medication or Meditation?
It’s that wonderful time of year when students bring pillows to the library, brew copious amounts of coffee and disable their beloved Facebook accounts. Yes, folks, its time for finals, and for many college students that means using “study drugs” -- “A-Train,” “Study Buddies,” “Revivers,” “Amps,” “Addies” and “Vivs” -- all slang terms for prescription stimulants such as Vyvanse, Adderall and Concerta.
More than 7 million Americans are using bootleg prescription stimulants, and 1.6 million of those users are college age, according to a study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Students are using “uppers” to push through all-nighters, attend three-hour lectures and have super-human focus. But studies have shown that the illegal use of these stimulants can not only lead to severe side effects, but can also affect a student’s faith in drug-free studying.
Stimulants are believed to work by increasing the brain levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with motivation, pleasure, attention, and movement. For many people with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), stimulant medications boost concentration and focus while reducing hyperactive and impulsive behaviors. According to a study published in The National Institute of Health, 61.7 percent of 483 students who were prescribed ADHD medication said they had been approached to sell, trade, or give their meds to others.
In a Web-based survey of 3,407 students taken in spring 2007 at UNC-Greensboro and Duke University, 90 percent of respondents reported using ADHD medication without a prescription. This goes way beyond the consumption of coffee and other caffeine-based drinks that have always been part of the college scene.
“They’re using performance enhancing drugs, almost like academic steroids,” says Dr. Eric Heiligenstein, head of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin. “Study drugs basically work like speed, with a powerful effect on the central nervous system.”
It’s not uncommon to look around a library and see students with a computer, a cup of coffee and a pill pouch on their desk. When asked about their use of non-prescribed stimulants, a University of Florida Engineering student replied, “Not only are people at this university incredibly intelligent, but when you give them Adderall it puts them at a level that’s almost impossible to compete with.
“So naturally I find it a necessity to take Adderall, just so I have a fighting chance.”
The most common side effects of ADHD medications are restlessness, tremors, anxiety, headaches, dizziness, insomnia, dryness of the mouth or an unpleasant taste in the mouth, diarrhea or constipation, and changes in sex drive. Undergraduates who use ADHD medication without a prescription say it’s worth the risk for one key reason: the meds enhance their ability to study. But many are unaware of the risks they’re taking. Little attention has been paid to how students perceive the effects of their non-medical use of ADHD medication.
In 2009, four doctors from Duke University conducted the largest study on this issue, The Misuse and Diversion of Prescribed ADHD Medications by College Students. Over 11,000 students attending 119 four-year colleges in the U.S. were asked about their non-medical use of ADHD medications. When compared to students who have never taken an ADHD stimulant, the results were staggering:
Sixty-seven percent of users smoked cigarettes, versus 24 percent of non-users. Sixty-nine percent of users engaged in frequent binge drinking, versus 21 percent of non-users. Nineteen percent of users took ecstasy, versus 1 percent of non-users. Thirty-five percent of users drove after binge drinking, versus 9 percent of non-users.
But after 50 University of Florida students who illegally use stimulants were read those statistics, 70 percent said they would continue to illegally buy ADHD medication. One student agreed with the results, saying, “This study makes sense. When I take Vyvanse, I almost feel invincible. So, yes, I can see myself more likely to engage in dangerous activities.” Yet he was among the 70 percent who said they would continue their usage.
Are there alternative methods to enhance last-minute cramming? Well, grab your yoga mats and essential oils, because a groundbreaking study on Transcendental Meditation has proven to be effective in the treatment of adults with ADHD. Hundreds of scientific studies have been conducted on the benefits of the Transcendental Meditation program at more than 200 independent universities and research institutions worldwide in the past 35 years, and the National Institutes of Health has awarded over $20 million to research the prevention-oriented health benefits of the TM program. The simple, easily learned Transcendental Meditation technique reduced stress levels, trait anxiety, depression, and “perfectionistic thinking” among 43 college students participating in a two-semester study at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
The true test is the fact that the study took place at the end of a semester, around the time of the students’ final exams, when one would expect stress levels to be heightened. Dr. Jack Jenkins, director of the P.K. Young Lab School and president of the Gainesville Association of Professionals Practicing the Transcendental Meditation Program, said TM offers a simple, effective solution to the critical problems facing education.
“Stress is debilitating in some cases, killing our students," Jenkins said. "Falling test scores, substance abuse and violence directly result from rising levels of stress in college .” He said hundreds of scientific research studies have shown that TM is a highly effective technique for significantly reducing stress and anxiety, and for increasing IQ, creativity and academic performance.
Although TM can lead to an overall focused state of mind without chemically altering brain functions, its hard to say if students would be willing to forgo a simple pop of a pill for a learned form of meditation.
A UF biology student who illegally uses ADHD medicine was read the report on the benefits of TM, but he was unimpressed.
“Sorry,” he said, “but I don’t think I’m going to be burning insense or listening to Enya before an exam. I’m not trying to be enlightened, find my inner chi, or be at peace with the world.
“I’m just trying to raise my GPA.”