March 12, 2015

Lit Review Finds One in Six College Students Misuse ADHD Stimulant Drugs

A literature review published by researchers at the University of South Carolina shows that one in six college students misuse common stimulant medications prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Ritalin, Adderall and similar ADHD drugs are Schedule II controlled substances—the same as cocaine and methamphetamine.

Student psychology major Kari Benson and associate professor Kate Flory collaborated at the University of South Carolina’s Parenting and Family Research Center, studying social impairment in children with ADHD.

Benson set out to analyze collegiate misuse of stimulant ADHD drugs, earning a grant as a Magellan Scholar from the Office of Undergraduate Research to help put together a survey of Carolina students. To familiarize herself with previous work in the area, she prepared a literature review that Flory thought merited publication, particularly because it highlighted how much uncertainty there was in the field.

“If you looked at individual studies, the rates of college student misuse were all over the place,” Flory told “They ranged from 2 percent to 43 percent. So when we submitted this for publication, the journal was really interested in us doing a meta-review of all the existing studies.”

That involved standardizing and pooling data from 30 articles, which Benson and Flory did in collaboration with Kathryn Humphreys of the Tulane University School of Medicine and Steve Lee of UCLA. They recently published their results in the journal Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review.

Researchers believe that college students misuse the drugs primarily because they think they bolster academic performance, although there is no study showing stimulant medication does so, Flory said. In fact, the meta-analysis suggested the opposite may be true, correlating poor academic performance with stimulant misuse.

Benson said, “Recreational use of the drugs, such as taking them with alcohol to prolong the amount of time a student can party, is less prevalent but extremely dangerous. It makes it possible to drink beyond the normal limit. So instead of passing out drunk, you might end up in the hospital having to get your stomach pumped.”

The review also concluded that the most common source of stimulant drugs was among friends, meaning there’s an informal network of students sharing Schedule II controlled substances on most college campuses.

The researchers’ next step is to work with the campus substance abuse prevention and education office, and assembling an interdisciplinary group of researchers to apply for a grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, to conduct an on-campus intervention.

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