SPECIAL REPORT: Smart Drugs - WEEK.com: Peoria-area News, Weather, Sports


PEORIA, Ill. – College is a time of change. Often, it's the first opportunity we're given to fully control our own schedules, our lives. 

As a result, we're often faced with the challenges and stresses that come with that responsibility. Add to that some of the most demanding schooling many of us will face, and students look for any kind of leg-up. That's when someone, often a friend, knows of a pill to help them study, to finish off that research paper in record time and not worry about eating or sleeping. Smart drugs are everywhere in a nation already plagued by drug abuse

It's no stretch to claim that there is a drug abuse problem in the U.S. Opioids typically get the spotlight - but there's another group of drugs just under the surface, a kind prevalent among college students. These so-called 'smart' drugs are rumored to help you study, to remember, to focus. They're the little pill that's a stressed student's answer to exams - and are a major cause of addiction in America. 

"So generally the perception from other college students is that it's a study drug. And most of the time when we hear about students who have used someone else's medication it is around very intense times of the year," said Dr. Jessica Higgs, director of health services at Bradley University.

Dr. Jessica Higgs works for Bradley University Health Services. These pills are considered stimulants, and are designed to help students with ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder -  to calm their hyperactivity and do better at concentration-heavy work during school. From there, students looking for an edge in school see the drugs results, and think it'll do the same for them.

"There's no reason to believe that they're going to focus any better when they're studying. What they get from the drugs is the decreased need for those things that distract from those studies," said Dr. Kirk Moberg, executive director of the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery. 

 According to a study published in the Journal of American College Health back in 2008, as many as 34 percent of college students reported taking ADHD medication without a prescription. The American College Health Association believes that number is even higher.

"On college campuses, and especially Adderall, it's a big deal. There are a couple of studies from the ACHA and others that suggested up to 50 percent of students have tried someone else's medication," said Higgs. 

For people with ADHD, these drugs are often the only thing that helps calm their minds and focus on the task at hand. Melissa Earl is a recent resident of Peoria. She has ADHD, and used Ritalin during her teenage years. 

"I was calm when I was taking it - because I was hyper then, but when I was taking it, I was really calm and focused," said Earl.

For women like Melissa, the drug does exactly as intended. However, even if it worked perfectly, amphetamines like Ritalin and Adderall have averse side effects.

"It hurt my body. I lost 10 to 12 pounds. I got very little sleep," said a former Ritalin user who wished to remain anonymous.

Though she wanted to remain anonymous, she was willing to share her story, how she has gotten past her need for prescription medication. At a younger age, she was diagnosed with ADHD, and didn't like the side effects.

"I felt like if I was going to pass, and I was going to get to the next level, that I had to have it," she said. "I've actually had to re-wire myself. I have found different ways to make myself study."

"Most people consider it a study drug. And most students, I think if you ask them 'is it illegal to take Adderall without a prescription,' I believe most of them would probably tell you no,” said Higgs. “They don't look at it like that because they're not getting it in a dark alley from some sketchy guy that they met, they're getting it from their friend down the hall."

Dr. Moberg with the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery believes the reason there is such a blasé attitude about the drugs is that - unlike Opioids, which have been making headlines the past year - stimulants aren't as responsible for overdose deaths, thus don't earn big headlines. 

In his opinion, the real issue isn't so much the drug or drugs used, but addiction as a disease and how we view it as a society.

"Addiction remains a disease of guilt and shame, and there are a lot of people who look down their noses at people who suffer from the disease,” said Moberg. “We need to change our whole philosophy and culture so that addiction is looked at like high blood pressure, or diabetes, or even cancer. And I mention cancer because addiction kills just like cancer does."

Doctor Moberg's thoughts were mirrored by US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who on November 17 released his report, “Facing Addiction In America.” In it, Doctor Murthy said that we need to help addicts not just by fighting the drugs, but by how we view addiction as a society.

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