It is that time of the year again: Midterms are here. If you haven’t been keeping up with the required academic work, likely you’ll be thinking that all-nighters are the answer to perform well. For some, use of caffeine will be the way to stay up late and focus; for a few others, the little magic Adderall pill will be the preferred way to go. Getting Adderall on this campus is not hard, so that’s not going to be a problem. The problem is that it is not going to help you!
Stimulant medications like Adderall, Concerta, Vyvanse and Ritalin are used to treat attention deficit disorder (ADHD). To know if you have the condition, you must have psychological testing done — this testing takes about four hours, and it is typically administered by a licensed psychologist over two sessions. Just the fact that you feel as though it is difficult to pay attention, read for long periods of time and absorb information doesn’t mean you have ADHD. The average age of onset is 7 years, so if you were not diagnosed in preschool, elementary or middle school it is unlikely that you have this condition.
Even though you will be able to stay up all night, there will be no performance enhancement.
If you have ADHD, stimulants will help. Studies show that functions of attention and even motor skills improve with use of stimulants if you have the neuropsychological deficits associated with ADHD. Studies also show that individuals who use non-prescribed stimulants and don’t have the condition perform significantly worse in the same administered tests. Peer-reviewed studies show that nonmedical prescription stimulant users have lower grade point averages than non-users. This suggests that the problem any given student experiences with academic performance is not going to be solved by a stimulant-aided all-nighter. Our students get exposed to a great deal of misinformation about the use of stimulants, mostly by anecdotal reports from peers suggesting that their performance is enhanced by the use of these medications. There is scientific evidence to the contrary: Even though you will be able to stay up all night, there will be no performance enhancement.
Other serious concerns are that nonmedical prescription stimulant users are more likely than other students to be heavy drinkers and use other illicit drugs. To me, the greatest danger of stimulant misuse during midterms and finals is sleep deprivation, which can lead to development of depression, psychosis and heart rhythm irregularities. Sadly, I see too many of these cases each quarter. Once any of these symptoms develop, they are difficult to treat and recovery takes months. So before you decide to take Adderall to help you study for midterms, think about it twice. There are too many risks and truly no benefits.
If you have questions or concerns, please contact the UCSB Alcohol and Drug Program (alcohol.sa.ucsb.edu). Counselors are available to offer non-judgmental support. Appointments are free and confidential and available by calling (805) 893-5013 or scheduling online at studenthealth.sa.ucsb.edu.
This article is part of the Daily Nexus regular column “THE DOC IS IN” coordinated by UCSB Alcohol and Drug Program staff. Articles feature information and advice from UCSB Student Health clinicians and other health professionals on and around campus.
Dr. Edwin Feliciano is a psychiatrist and Director of UCSB Behavioral Health Services at Student Health.