Adderall Use: Pre-Health Students Discuss An Open Secret

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  December 6, 2017

It is a fairly open secret amongst Stern’s cohort of pre-health students that a small percentage of them are taking non-prescribed Adderall. Adderall is a stimulant drug often prescribed to help people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) stay focused and control their behavior. But despite this medical purpose, it has become widely known as a “study drug.” Students across college and even high school campuses buy Adderall pills illegally, often from other students who have prescriptions, and use them to help stay focused while doing schoolwork.

Multiple sources confirmed with The Observer that they know of at least five pre-health students at Stern who have taken or are currently taking non-prescribed Adderall to aid with schoolwork, but the number may easily be higher given that not all students were asked and not all students who take the drug are willing to share that information.

To learn more about this issue The Observer sent an anonymous survey to a random sampling of pre-health students at Stern, giving them a forum to voice their opinions on the issue. Questions asked included: is taking non-prescribed Adderall wrong? Is it is cheating? Should students who do it be punished? And how should the administration respond to this issue?  

While a number of students in Yeshiva College and Sy Syms School of Business confirmed the use of non-prescribed Adderall amongst students in their majors, the Stern pre-health cohort is a good test case to explore this issue at large. Because most of the women taking non-prescribed Adderall are fairly open about it, the situation is pretty well known amongst the pre-health students, and so many students have already formed very passionate opinions about the topic. Of the students surveyed, 57% reported that they knew that some of their peers took non-prescribed Adderall, and 24% claimed that they had been told personally by the students who are taking it.

Only two respondents admitted to taking non-prescribed adderall themselves. One explained that she took the drug because, “there were many times where the coursework was simply too much to handle and I have a hard time focusing due to anxiety, so I found that Adderall would occasionally help with that.”

The second student who admitted to using the non-prescribed Adderall similarly noted her anxiety. “I don’t take it before every exam, only when I am completely swamped and am on the verge of a mental breakdown and I know that I will not be able to get anything done due to my anxiety. Even if I take the smallest possible dose that would normally do nothing for someone with diagnosed AD[H]D, the placebo effect that I get is enough to calm me down enough to get work done.” She also noted that besides her own anxiety, she believes “everyone has AD[H]D sometimes, diagnosed or not.”

Many pre-health students who spoke to The Observer in person expressed their frustration over the Adderall situation, noting that it “wasn’t fair” and that the students should be “held accountable for their actions.” However, based on the responses to the anonymous survey, the picture is far more complex. While 96% of respondents agreed that taking non-prescribed Adderall to do schoolwork is wrong, only 42% of respondents agreed that it should be considered cheating.

In fact, Stern’s 2016-2018 Undergraduate Catalog does not include the use of any  non-prescribed drug enhancements as a form of cheating in its list of Academic Integrity Policies. Nonetheless, 42% of respondents still felt that taking non-prescribed Adderall to do schoolwork constitutes cheating.

In explaining why taking non-prescribed Adderall to do schoolwork should be considered cheating, a few students compared it to athletes taking performance enhancing drugs. As one student put it, “athletes aren’t allowed to take drugs to do better [in their sports], so why should students be allowed to [take drugs to do better in school]. It’s not natural talent, it’s illegally enhanced talent.”

The idea that taking non-prescribed Adderall is, as one student put it, “a misrepresentation of your own capabilities,” was echoed in a number of explanations for why it should be considered cheating. Another student elaborated that “it alters your personal mental capability, offering you an edge over other similarly equipped students in a way that is not reflective of your abilities and cannot be sustained without the medication.”

However the majority of respondents, 58%, did not view taking non-prescribed Adderall to do schoolwork as cheating. The most popular argument for this position was that even if a student takes Adderall, she will still have to study in order to do well. As one student who admitted to taking Adderall wrote, “Adderall will increase your level of focus, not the amount of information you know for that test. I could take three Adderalls before a Physics test, but if I haven’t studied properly I would still fail. The opposite is also true: I have taken many tests without the help of Adderall (I generally have only taken it when I am studying) and have done very well.”

A number of students compared taking non-prescribed Adderall to using a tutor. Tutors for classes like Organic Chemistry and Physics can be very expensive, and thus financially prohibitive for many students. While The Observer has been told that the average price of a single Adderall capsule is about $8 at Stern, the popular science tutor Nomi, founder of Chromium Prep, charges $50 per group session and at least $100 for a private session. Both tutoring and Adderall are, as one student put it, “means of raising yourself among the competition, and they’re both not necessarily accessible to everyone,” making them an inherently “unfair advantage.” Despite giving students an “unfair advantage,” tutoring is obviously not cheating, and likewise taking non-prescribed Adderall is not cheating either.

Nonetheless, although these respondents do not consider non-prescribed Adderall to be cheating, all but one still consider it to be wrong. One of the most cited reasons for this position was that it is illegal to buy or sell illicit drugs. As one student put it, “buying and selling of prescription drugs like this is illegal. It’s not just a school policy thing or a cheating thing–it’s illegal.”

In terms of school policy, YU’s Policy on Drugs and Alcohol does explicitly forbid the possession, use, or distribution of amphetamines, one of the two main ingredients in Adderall, as well as of Ritalin, a stimulant very similar to Adderall also used for treating ADHD. However Adderall itself is not currently mentioned. Still, even if Adderall is not explicitly included on YU’s list of forbidden illicit drugs, the possession, use, or distribution of non-prescribed drugs is  most certainly illegal according to New York State law.

Another very popular reason given had to due with the health risks of non-prescribed drugs. “Taking non-prescribed Adderall is dangerous,” one student wrote. “Adderall is a prescription drug for a reason, and taking it without doctor’s supervision is detrimental to one’s health.”

Two students touched on the stigma that using Adderall as an illicit “study drug” has given to people who really need it “in order to function normally.” One wrote from a deeply personal perspective, as someone with a brother, sister, and father with ADHD. “[My siblings and father]  need their Adderall to barely get by at the same level as the average person,” she wrote. “So it’s a shame and almost painful to watch so many of my peers take advantage of these medications to help themselves hyperfocus, when there are so many people close to me…that take these medicines because of a serious issue that they struggle with every day. There is nothing casual or acceptable about taking medicines for any attention deficit disorders when you do not need them because of all the people who do need them.”

Respondents were also asked how the administration should respond to this activity. 74% of respondents agreed that the administration should penalize students for taking non-prescribed Adderall to perform better on schoolwork. However 29% of those respondents voiced doubts about the school’s ability to regulate and punish such behavior.

Another 26% of respondents felt that no consequences should be instituted at all. The same student who attributed her use of non-prescribed adderall to undiagnosed ADHD and anxiety, explained that it would be wrong to punish students for this because “it’s possible that they feel like they suffer from AD[H]D but were never officially tested or diagnosed.” Adding to this point, another student expressed that such penalties would be unfair because “there are people that technically have prescriptions but probably don’t actually have sufficient reason to be on Adderall”–so why should someone who might need the medication but hasn’t been diagnosed be punished over such a person.

While not everyone felt that a punishment for taking non-prescribed Adderall for schoolwork should be instituted, the vast majority of respondents, 91%, agreed that the administration needs to address this problem. Again, a significant number, 23%, of those students expressed doubts in the administration’s ability to address or begin to solve this problem.

A number of respondents however did suggest possible solutions. The most popular suggestion, offered by 27% of respondents, was that the administration educate students about, as one student put it, the “health risks involved in taking non-prescription drugs.”

One student suggested the school give drug tests, since they should have “on record who has a prescription and who doesn’t,” and can then penalize those whose results don’t match up with their medical records. Another student noted that she doesn’t see a way to penalize students without administering drug tests, but noted that she would “not support Stern doing [this].”

Others simply wanted the administration to acknowledge the problem, whether or not they can practically penalize students. One student suggested that “the school acknowledge the problem and declare it to be cheating according to the university’s honor code,” a sentiment which a handful of students echoed.

Finally a number of students pointed to the “competitive” and “high stress” nature of the pre-health tracks as a greater root of this problem. One student explained that, “in my experience, the girls I know who take Adderall tend to be under more pressure from their parents. In one case, a girl actually gets her sister’s medication from her mother.” To deal with this, some students suggested the administration “address the bigger issue of how to respond to [these] high pressure environments” while others suggested that these issues should be addressed directly “with the counseling center” and the pre-health cohort.  

When asked about addressing this problem as a school, Director of the Counseling Center Dr. Yael Muskat assured The Observer that “resources are available” at Stern to deal with this issue in a healthy way. “University counselors, professors, and administrators are often able to help students lessen their loads and meet their goals, safely.” She emphasized that “rather than endanger one’s own health and wellbeing, we encourage students to reach out to the many pathways of support that are available to them.”