College student David, a marketing major at Oregon State University (OSU), crams for his exams during finals week. With a busy schedule and difficult classes, he stresses about the limited time he has to study. Like many students, he has a tough time focusing.
“Try this,” a friend says, handing him a Tylenol-sized red pill. “This might help.”
A second generation Chinese American and native Oregonian, David accepts his friend’s offer and experiments with the drug Adderall for the first time. He likes the results.
“It helps me focus a lot more when it comes to crunch time,” David says. “I can sit there for four to five hours straight studying without having to hit a wall or anything. It’s great.”
Chemically composed of the psychostimulants dextroamphetamine and amphetamine, Adderall is a prescription drug used to treat the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). When used correctly, it can help to control focus and maintain movement amongst people who suffer from ADHD. When used illegally, it is a handy study tool to many.
David is one of many college students who use and abuse prescription drugs. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center, that number is on the rise on most campuses. More specifically, it is believed to be on the rise among Asian Pacific American students -- but data measuring APAs as a subgroup, for various reasons, is widely unavailable.
Prevalence of Prescription Drug Use
Despite being one of the fastest growing minority populations in the United States, current data on prescription drug abuse is slim to none.
According to “Asian-Americans, Addictions, and Barriers to Treatment” by Dr. Timothy Fong and Dr. John Tsuang from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine: “Due to model minority stereotypes and a lack of empirical data, AAPIs (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) have been thought to have lower than expected rates of substance use disorders and behavioral addictions.”
“We don’t have really good studies,” Dr. Tsuang said, noting that much of the information currently known is from survey studies, which can be very unreliable.
Similarly, Bradford Stone, acting director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Office of Communications under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that there is not much data available for APAs.
However, Dr. Tsuang believes that the abuse of prescription drugs among both APA students and college students in general is on the rise. He described two different subgroups of users among APA students: one group that misuses prescription drugs to enhance their academic performance and a second group looking for experimentation.
David first began taking Adderall to make the grades he wanted. Feeling pressure from his first generation Chinese parents to succeed and added stress to graduate this year as a super senior, David started using what many have dubbed the “Miracle Drug” for college students.
“I need to succeed,” David says. “I can’t let my parents down.” However, he believes that all college students face a similar attitude from their families to some extent. “I assume it’s the same [for everybody else]. We’re here for a reason.”
Additionally, he does not notice a particular prevalence amongst APA students specifically.
“I don’t think it [race] really matters to be honest with you. It’s just anybody. It’s that feeling that everyone wants to succeed. Everyone wants to do better -- if there is a method that you can [use to] do better, they [students] would do it.”
In fact, David estimated that, during finals week, 80 to 90 percent of the students at OSU are on Adderall.
“You’ll sit around, you’ll see people asking their friends for Adderall. I’ve seen people do that before.”
The increasing pressure to do well in every class, balance a full plate of extracurricular activities, and maintain a high grade point average is often described as succumbing to the “Model Minority Myth” of APA students being overall high achievers. Dr. Tsuang believes that the Model Minority Myth is simply that: a myth. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that APA students do face pressure in school that can cause many to look for alternate routes to success.
“I think the academic pressure to succeed sometimes will pressure some of the use of psychostimulants that’s not prescribed to them [APA students],” he said.
A research report at the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center by acting director and assistant research scientist Sean Esteban McCabe entitled, “Non-medical use of prescription stimulants among U.S. college students: prevalence and correlates from a national survey,” concluded that, in a 2001 survey, the most frequent users were Caucasian, male, members of fraternities and sororities, earned lower GPAs, and were at colleges with competitive admissions located in the Northeastern United States.
While statistics for APAs may be lower than Caucasians -- SAMHSA’s 2000 survey revealed approximately 5 percent of AAPIs had used some category of illicit drug within the past year -- Fong and Tsuang’s publication further notes that the percentages differ based on APA subgroups.
For example, Japanese Americans “… were found to have substance use and abuse rates similar to those of Caucasians, while Vietnamese Americans reported the lowest level …” Additionally, “AAPIs of mixed-heritage reported much higher rates of substance use and abuse as compared to unmixed racial groups.”
Furthermore, usage differs within APA generations. Fong and Tsuang reported that nearly 70 percent of AAPIs who met the criteria for substance use disorder were foreign-born.
Beginning with taking half of his friend’s red 20-milligram pill, David experimented with various doses until he found an amount he was comfortable with. Consequently, his current, go-to dosage is the same as his initial trial: 10 milligrams. While on Adderall, David says he experiences both physical and psychological effects.
“It can be a mental thing,” he says.
Despite the differing dosage of Adderall that students take, David references a placebo effect that comes with simply taking the drug at all. “[You think] since I’m on Adderall, I should be able to focus right now.”
Physically, David does just that.
“I just zone in on one thing; everything else really doesn’t matter. When I take it sometimes I put on my headphones and I sit there and go to town on whatever I’m doing. I usually just sit there and complete it without distraction. I usually don’t need a break; I’m good to go the entire time.”
Conversely, taking Adderall can lead to the opposite of the intended results. According to David, the drug enables one to focus intensely on whatever their current activity is -- whether or not it is homework is up to the user. He recalled how, on multiple occasions, the drug took effect in the middle of leisure activities, causing accidental hours of wasted time to fly by unnoticed.
“I sat there for like two-and-a-half to three hours playing video games,” David remembered. “I got stuck on Facebook for like four hours in the library. It happens. I snap out of it after a little while.”
On Adderall-time, however, David says that a little while often means a few hours.
“I’m aware of what I’m doing, it’s just time flies. You’re not aware of time.”
He noted that there are certain methods to try and guarantee that the drug is used for its intended purpose.
“I usually go to the library before I take one [pill] or [stay] in my room with my textbooks open. I can do my six-hour studying in four hours or three hours. I think the reason why I do it is because the benefits outweigh whatever could possibly happen. I’m here to make the grades. You better be safe than sorry.”
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine under the National Institutes of Health, misusing Adderall is anything but safe. The combination of the compounds in Adderall may become habit-forming as well as cause serious problems such as stroke, heart attack and even sudden death.
Tsuang noted that a significant problem arises when students use more than what is recommended. When interviewed, David was not aware of any effects and insisted that he is not dependent.
“I’m not a druggie. I take it rarely,” he said, estimating that, on average, he uses Adderall three times a quarter for approximately a three-day period. “Students who take it all the time usually take it every day.”
“I personally have a really strong will against drugs; I don’t get addicted easily,” David continued. “I can stop whenever, but I believe some people need to keep taking it. They need the feeling to actually focus.”
Coupled with the rising number of APA college students abusing prescription drugs, Tsuang says that current treatment methods need some improvement. He notes that treatments that may work for some ethnic groups are not always suited for APAs, such as group treatment. “It needs to be more culturally sensitive,” he said.
While Tsuang is concerned about treatment methods, David is more focused on his upcoming studies.
Staying at OSU for the summer quarter to take classes, David predicts that he will most likely take Adderall again in the coming week for his finals. However, after thinking for a moment, he changes his mind.
“[It] depends on how hard the class [is],” he added. “I’ll only take it if I need it. If you have your own personal will [to study], I don’t recommend taking it.”