How a student’s area of study may impact use of ADHD medication
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder medications are now a reality in the lives of America’s college students. Since the 1990s, doctors have increasingly accepted ADHD as a medical condition — one that can be treated with drugs.
As of 2011, about 11 percent of children between the ages of 4 and 17 had been diagnosed with ADHD, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And for many of them, the primary treatment was medication, according to a 2013 study led by Susanna Visser, a researcher at the CDC. The most popular form of ADHD medication is prescription stimulants, such as Adderall, Ritalin and Concerta. They’re uppers, the same as cocaine or methamphetamine.
And for many people who have been diagnosed with ADHD, the treatment doesn’t stop when they transition from children to adults. As a result, college campuses are flooded with what is essentially pharmaceutical-grade speed.
Of course, we should not be naïve enough to assume every college student keeps their medication to themselves. Research by David Rabiner of Duke University has shown students who are prescribed ADHD medication regularly sell it to their peers. His study, “The Misuse and Diversion of Prescribed ADHD Medications by College Students,” found that about one in four college students who were prescribed ADHD medication had given it to another student. These medications, colloquially referred to as “study drugs,” are primarily used by students to stay awake and focus more intently on academic work.
Different groups of students use more than other groups. For example, a study led by Sean McCabe — research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women & Gender — titled “Medical Use, Illicit Use And Diversion Of Prescription Stimulant Medication,” found white college students use at a higher rate than non-white college students and men use at a much higher rate than women.
However, there was one factor that struck me as missing — what a student is studying. No work had been done to determine whether a student’s area of study predicts their illicit use of prescription ADHD medication.
I decided to do a research project to examine the non-medical use of ADHD medication at Ithaca College.
I carried out the project by surveying a sample of Ithaca College students during the Fall 2015 semester. Five hundred students, who were selected at random out of all undergraduates at the college, received invitations to take the survey through email. A total of 89 responded. They were asked questions about themselves, their major and their use of ADHD medication. The results are as follows.
The results of the survey indicate a high degree of non-medical use of ADHD medication among students. Of the survey-takers, 16.9 percent of students reported medical use of the medication, while 22.5 percent reported that they had used these drugs non-medically at some point in their life — almost one in four students. Consistent with the results of prior research, men used at a rate almost three times that of women. But perhaps the most interesting finding was the study’s indication that a student’s area of study is tied to the likelihood they will use ADHD drugs non-medically.
Within Ithaca College, the highest rate of use was found in the School of Business, with 57.1 percent of the student respondents using prescription ADHD medication non-medically, more than twice the rate of students on average.
On the other side, only 6.7 percent of the respondents from the School of Health Science and Human Performance had used ADHD medication non-medically, and none of the students from the School of Music reported use. Students in the Exploratory program had a rate of use more than twice the general population at 46.7 percent of respondents. However, it’s not immediately clear what these students have in common, as students in this program can end up in any school.
Some may argue against these findings by saying the differences in rates of use is just due to chance and the small sample size of the study makes it meaningless. However, there are statistical tests that can be run to evaluate if this is the case. For this study, a chi-square test was performed. This test tells how likely it is that the relationship found by the study is real, and not just due to a problem like small sample size. In the social sciences, this test has to predict that there is a 95 percent chance that the relationship is real in order to be considered significant. This study passed that test. That means there is less than a 5 percent chance the relationship between a student’s area of study and their non-medical use of prescription ADHD medication is due to chance.
So, what should we make of these results? These findings open more questions than they answer. What makes students use at such different rates? Is there something about the academic work in different areas of study that makes ADHD medication helpful for some and not others? These uncertainties demonstrate the need for a qualitative, interview-based project to examine why students behave in this way.
However, one of the most important questions raised by findings like these is why so many students feel the need to take a performance enhancing drug. This drug use doesn’t occur in a vacuum and is impacted by the culture of higher education. We as a culture need to consider what we value, as well as the way that students approach their studies.
Taylor Ford is a junior sociology major who gets a high out of writing articles. You can email him at [email protected].