Deterring College Students From Stimulant Abuse

ADHD and morbid-obesity medications sometimes do double-duty as “study drugs” for high school and college students. But this can quickly fringe into stimulant abuse.

Prescription stimulants produce their intended therapeutic effects by gradually increasing the normal rate of communication between the primary cells in the brain and spinal cord.

Counterintuitive as it seems, this increased communication rate can have a calming, focusing effect on people affected by the hyperactive, inattentive states of mind that characterize the core effects of ADHD.

In addition, these medications do such things as reduce appetite (key to their effectiveness in obesity treatment), promote wakefulness and trigger a boost in both heart rate and blood pressure levels.

All prescription stimulants make changes in brain chemistry that can lead to physical dependence and addiction. However, as a rule, people who take these medications according to their doctors’ instructions avoid any dependence- or addiction-related issues.

Study drugs and stimulant abuse

The term study drug typically refers to any one of a variety of stimulant ADHD medications that are subject to misuse as academic performance enhancers. Common examples of these medications include:

  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate, Daytrana)
  • Amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
  • Lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse)

Some students who take study drugs misuse their own legitimately prescribed ADHD medications; other students who take these drugs don’t have ADHD and obtain their supply from friends or illicit dealers. In either case, inappropriate use of these substances constitutes a form of drug abuse. All people who abuse prescription stimulants substantially increase their chances of experiencing related problems with physical dependence or addiction. Individuals not affected by ADHD have especially elevated chances of encountering these problems.

Positive associations with stimulants

In a study published in October 2013 in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from UC Berkeley and Oregon State University explored some of the expectations that college students bring with them when they start abusing prescription stimulants.

These researchers found that students who begin using study drugs have a preexisting positive viewpoint toward stimulant use.

The students also believe that they gain significant benefits from the added focus, boost in attentiveness and increased alertness that typically accompany the illicit ingestion of ADHD medications.

Discouraging study drugs

In the study published in September 2013 in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the University of North Dakota and the State University of New York at Albany tested the effectiveness of an approach called expectancy challenge intervention as a way to deter college students from starting down the road of study drug use.

During expectancy challenge intervention, participants attend brief informational sessions designed to counter their preexisting, positive assumptions about prescription stimulant misuse. These sessions outline the dangers of stimulant abuse and also question the true usefulness of ADHD medications as enhancers of academic performance.

During the study, 47 students with no prior history of prescription stimulant abuse participated in expectancy challenge intervention sessions. Another comparison group of 49 students with identical stimulant abuse histories did not go through expectancy challenge intervention. In testing conducted at the end of the intervention sessions, the students who went through those sessions had significantly less favorable attitudes toward study drug use than their peers who did not go through an intervention.

However, when follow-up testing was conducted half a year later, the students who participated in expectancy challenge intervention abused prescription stimulants roughly as often as the students who did not have their drug expectations challenged.

Attitude changes towards stimulants

Based on their findings, the authors of the study published in September 2013 in Drug and Alcohol Dependence concluded that expectancy challenge intervention does produce short-term changes in students’ positive attitudes toward prescription stimulant abuse. While the benefits of the approach are temporary, the authors note that any reduction in a positive viewpoint toward drug use can potentially curb a person’s long-term drug intake.

They also note that long-term reinforcement of brief expectancy challenge intervention’s effects likely requires a stronger or longer course of attitude modification.

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