Didn’t We Almost Have it All: College Students Crashing on Psychostimulants

“Better living through better chemistry.”  It was part of a Dupont slogan from the 1930s that turned into an idea permeating Western culture by the 1960s and continuing to this very day.  For decades Americans have sought to improve their lives through the use of various chemicals.  Today, college students in particular continue this practice with the widespread use of psychostimulants.

Psychostimulants are a group of drugs that include prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin, and “street” drugs like cocaine and meth.  No matter what the form, they all have similar effects of decreasing fatigue, increasing a sense of energy and focusing one’s attention.  These drugs have become increasingly popular with college students who are seeking better college life through better chemistry.  In fact, one recent survey found that nearly 1 out of every four college students surveyed reported using prescription psychostimulants, the vast majority using them illegally (Norris, 2018).

College students who illicitly use prescription psychostimulants tend to believe that they will improve their college experiences and they hold misperceptions about the risks.

Beliefs include:

  • They will help me improve my grades.
  • They will help me lose weight or they will help me eat less now so I can drink more later.
  • They are basically harmless. Doctors give them out so easily.

The essential belief: “I can have it all.  I can party all I want, be thin, and get good grades.”  Unfortunately the reality is: “Close, but no cigar.

Let’s look at each.

  • It is true that stimulants of all kinds will help a student remain awake and feeling more alert. When it comes to illicit use of prescription psychostimulants though, longitudinal research of almost 900 college students found that it has absolutely no benefit on grades in the long run.  In fact, those students in the study who abstained from psychostimulants were able to improve their grades significantly more than those who used (Arria et al., 2016).
  • It is also true that for many people, psychostimulants act to suppress appetite. For those who are looking to lose weight, the illicit use of psychostimulants can deplete the body of crucial nutrients leading to numerous medical problems.  Also, there is an increased correlation with advancing eating disorders, devastating conditions that can end up completely taking over a person’s life. (Jeffers & Benotsch, 2014) For those simply trying to “save calories” by not eating so they can drink more (often refered to as “drunkorexia”), the harms associated with a lack of nutrients is compounded by the increased impact of alcohol on the body when they do drink and have little to nothing in the stomach to buffer the effects (Lupi, Martinotti, & Di Giannantonio, 2017).
  • The perception that these drugs are harmless may be common to students and even parents but medical professionals and scientists who study substance abuse, addiction and the impacts of illicit drug use are baffled by such belief. These prescription stimulants are Schedule II drugs in the same category as cocaine. Potential risk at high doses include: seizures, heart failure, high body temperature and irregular heartbeat. Chronic use can cause anger, paranoia, convulsions, impulsivity, impaired judgement, acute psychotic episodes and addiction (NIDA, 2018).

One certainly hates to be the bearer of bad news but the truth is that there is no pill that will help anyone “have it all.”  For those who try, they will likely be disappointed with the results at best and pay significant consequences at worst.

Far better choices exist for those looking to improve grades, maintain health, and have an active social life.  The three most important tools for accomplishing all of these are already known to nearly everyone in America: proper diet, rest, and exercise.  Unfortunately, this very sentence makes us roll our eyes and say “I know that!  I just *insert excuse here*”.  And this is the root of our problem.

Illicit stimulants are not a problem because they are some moral evil.  They are a problem because they ultimately will not provide people with what they are looking for. 

They are a temporary solution full of false promise.  It is analogous to being in a rush to get somewhere 50 miles away when a tire blows.  No matter how far the rush, if I don’t take the time to stop and change the tire, the car can keep rolling for a while but eventually it will be damaged to a point beyond repair.

I do wish I had better news.  I wish there was a magic pill that could take the place of healthy eating, good rest, and a bit of consistent exercise.  But alas…

Perhaps Oprah Winfrey said it best, “You can have it all.  You just can’t have it all at once.”

Here’s to living healthy and having it all, in time.

John Dyben, DHSc, is the Chief Clinical Officer at Origins Behavioral HealthCare. 

His experience as teacher and counselor to executive clinical supervisor, and ordained pastor informs his therapeutic approach to integrating clinical intervention approaches with individual and family needs, as well as continuity of care. He holds a Doctor of Health Science, Master of Science in Management and a Master of Arts in Conflict Management. He is a Certified Mental Health Professional, Certified Master Addiction Professional, Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, Substance Abuse Professional and Certified MBTI practitioner.

Written by John Dyben, DHSc, MA, MS, and Florida credentials: MCAP, CMHP, SAP

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