KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A University of Kansas freshman took a break from shooting hoops with friends outside his dormitory to talk about what some students call "study pills."
As final exams approached last semester, he took a couple doses of a prescribed stimulant called Adderall. "But all they did was make me feel nervous," said the chemical engineering major. "I'm off of it now."
He still has a vial of leftover pills he used for his attention issues in high school. And that's why he asked that his name not appear in this article: He didn't want to be pressed by dormmates to supply them with an illegal focus boost for upcoming finals.
The controlled stimulants that many college students seek, if only for a momentary edge, carry familiar brand names such as Adderall, Vyvanse, Focalin and Ritalin. They're all standard drugs for treating attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, often successfully.
Their misuse, however, is thought to be on the rise at campuses nationwide — creating a potentially serious health hazard and trips to the emergency room for students not diagnosed for ADHD.
The extent of the problem is anyone's guess. Because of what experts consider a lack of reliable research, illicit dealing of ADHD drugs either is infrequent on campus or something so commonplace as to be the college crowd's best-kept secret.
"The only people who don't know about it are the parents," said University of Kentucky communications professor Alan D. DeSantis. "I'm sure the majority of my students will be using Adderall at some time during finals week. It's really built into the climate and culture of today's college life."
DeSantis has analyzed several years' worth of surveys of Kentucky undergraduates to conclude that at least one-third of the student body has taken ADHD medication without prescriptions. Another 8 percent use the drugs legally under a doctor's supervision, he said, and half of them provide pills to other students.
The incidence of use appears to be higher among Kentucky seniors and juniors than for younger students, DeSantis added.
Assessing a variety of surveys, a 2008 study published in the Journal of American Child Adolescent Psychiatry offered a not-so-precise range of 5 percent to 35 percent of college-aged people taking attention-deficit stimulants not prescribed for them.
A University of Missouri survey found a usage rate in between.
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About 12 percent in a sample of Mizzou students admitted to using controlled stimulants or painkillers, prescribed or illegally, said Kim Dude, director of the University of Missouri's Wellness Resource Center. "Eighty-five percent of the students don't use any of that."
But she does agree with the KU freshman — don't let on if you've got attention-deficit pills.
"We urge students and their parents from the start: Don't tell anybody," Dude said. "They'll run into peer pressure to sell it or give it away" to other students.