Pressure pills: students stressed to succeed


The pressure of school causes students to turn to illegal prescription drugs to improve their performance.

By MAKENZIE HUBER Editor-in-Chief

The pressure to succeed is ever present for college students. Employers and professional programs expect students to be well-rounded individuals who achieve high grade point averages, involved in multiple campus activities and leaders among their peers.

For some students, those expectations can lead to illegal use of prescription drugs to perform better in school, otherwise known as “pressure pills.”

These pressure pills are usually used among students during high stress times, such as midterms and finals. Because of this, many students think they can’t get addicted to the substance, but that’s a common misconception. Just like any drug, there are always risks.

Although Darci Nichols, assistant director of Wellness Center Counseling, doesn’t often see students come in to address this issue, she recognizes it as a nation-wide problem.

About 10 percent of college students nationally have used prescription drugs illegally to perform better in school, according to the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery.

Students who use pressure pills would appear as “a student spread very thin,” Nichols said. This profile is a student who tries to accomplish multiple things in a short amount of time, trying to balance work, friends, family, school, activities and a social life.

“I think they’re a student trying to get done in less time,” Nichols said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a low-achieving student, but rather busy students.”

What pressure pills do is help students focus, settle down and react to their environment. These prescription drugs, such as Adderall or Ritalin, are typically prescribed to students with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Liza McCann, a senior graphic design and advertising major, is prescribed Adderall. It helps her pay attention and “zoom in” on work so she isn’t distracted by other things.

McCann tries to keep the fact that she takes the prescription medication to herself, because she doesn’t want people to ask her about it. A few people have approached her about using her medication to help them study, but she hasn’t given it to anyone.

“I don’t think people realize what they’re doing is putting amphetamines in their body,” McCann said. “I don’t want to have to take it, and I don’t most of the time because I don’t like how it makes me feel. People need to realize it’s a prescription drug that can harm you, just like any other drug.”

One side effect McCann is concerned about when people take pressure pills are the effects on mental health. She said it can make people moody.

“It will kind of turn you into something you’re not,” McCann said. “I don’t know why people would want to deal with that when they don’t need to.”

Additional effects of such drugs include issues with high blood pressure, anxiety and impulsiveness, especially if a person doesn’t have ADHD and uses the drug, according to Jeremy Daniel, an assistant professor with the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions and a psychiatric clinical pharmacist with Avera Health.

“Students might have too heavy of a class load, or they aren’t using their time well. So, they use these stimulants as a crutch to get them through heavier times,” Daniel said.

And there’s always a possibility of developing an addiction, even if the drugs are used only three or four times a semester. Any medication that affects dopamine in the brain can affect addiction, Daniel said.

Short term abuse of such medications can cause insomnia and sleep deprivation for students.

“Typical signs of abuse would be someone who during finals week stays up for days studying for tests, but then crashes and sleeps most of the weekend,” Nichols said. “Whenever someone is taking them off-label or abusing them not as prescribed, that’s typically it. They’ve got a lot due, they can stay up and not sleep, but then they crash. It’s very extreme.”

According to Daniel, there are other ways for students to curb stress and carry such a heavy workload. This includes exercising, spending time with friends or finding an inexpensive hobby.

“Students crunched for time typically avoid those activities because it takes up a certain amount of time. But you don’t have to spend an hour working out,” Daniel said. “One of the things we see on the mental health side of things, is that even exercising or taking time to relax for 10-15 minutes, you’re more productive after that time — more effective in the time you have left.”

McCann believes the use of pressure pills to perform better in school is more common than the use of some other drugs because it’s casual.

“It’s just around. People see others doing it and don’t think twice about what it actually is,” McCann said.