In a shifting economy without any assurances of success, there's a lot of pressure on students to succeed in school. More and more kids are going to college and the application process is competitive. To help stand out, students are taking on tougher course loads, along with extracurricular activities and leadership roles. In order to pack everything in, some kids turn to prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin to stay awake and focus on school work and test prep. They can obtain the medication from doctors, peers and sources they find online. However, many of these students, both in high school and in college, don’t know the physical or neurological ramifications of taking drugs that haven’t been prescribed to them by a doctor.
“We live in this culture of excellence,” said Michael McCutcheon, a counseling psychology phD candidate at New York University, on KQED’s Forum, “and if you are at a competitive high school and you know the culture really only celebrates success or money, then everything is riding on this test.” That overwhelming pressure – the feeling that every test and grade matters for ones future – combined with ease of access to these drugs makes their use seductive. Stanford Graduate School of Education senior lecturer Denise Pope found similar experiences among thousands of high school students she has interviewed or observed in her work.
“These kids are completely overloaded,” Pope said. “They come from high achieving schools, but these kids feel like there’s more homework than there is time in a day.” She cited increased pressure to take Advanced Placement or honors classes that require lots of homework, along with the explosion of extracurricular activities and the time students devote to them as some of the reasons for increased stress.
“The kids who cheat in high school, absolutely cheat in college,” Pope said. “My guess would be that if this is negative coping strategy that you are employing, it’s your go-to strategy when you have the stress and overload in college.”
Indeed, study drugs are most often used by high achieving high school students and among college student-athletes and those who participate in the Greek system. A 2009 review of the literature on study drugs found that anywhere between five and nine percent of middle and high school students, and five to 35 percent of college students use prescription drugs to stay awake and focus longer than they would normally.