Stimulant Misuse in College Students with ADHD

Substance misuse among college students has been extensively researched. There is also limited research addressing the issue of substance (legal and illegal) misuse in college students with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But identifying which substances are most commonly abused by college students who have high levels of conduct problems that co-occur with ADHD is something that few studies have examined. To address this concern, Kathryn Van Eck of the Department of Psychology at the University of South Carolina led a study that looked at the rates of substance abuse among young adults with conduct problems (CP), antisocial personalities (APD), sensation seeking (SS) behaviors, and ADHD.

For her study, Van Eck evaluated self-reports from 660 college students ranging in age between 18 and 25 years old. The students reported on their use of over-the-counter (OTC) stimulants, such as caffeine pills, illegal drug use, and prescription stimulants. They were assessed for CP, APD, SS, and ADHD. The results confirmed previous research that shows a link between ADHD and OTC and prescription stimulant misuse. Additionally, the participants with SS behaviors also reported increased misuse of stimulants. Van Eck believes that many people with ADHD derive immediate benefits from caffeine stimulants, such as increased concentration, organization, and focus. But she points out that these benefits are usually short term and are far outweighed by the negative consequences that can result from this type of abuse, such as addiction, sleep deprivation, and mood swings.

The study also showed that the students who had symptoms of CP and ADHD had the highest rates of prescription stimulant abuse. This finding shows that individuals who have CP, with or without ADHD, are at increased risk for substance dependency, and those with comorbid ADHD are especially vulnerable. Because many college students are prescribed stimulants, the opportunity to obtain them illegally on college campuses is abundant. Clinicians prescribing stimulants to students with a history of drug misuse may consider using other approaches to help them manage their symptoms of inattention, memory problems and disorganization. Van Eck added, “These students may benefit from psychotherapy oriented toward improving management of these symptoms.”

Van Eck, K., Markle, R. S., Flory, K. (2012). Do Conduct Problems and Sensation Seeking Moderate the Association Between ADHD and Three Types of Stimulant Use in a College Population? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027431

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  • Steph


    March 23rd, 2012 at 4:52 PM

    Yes, they may benefit from therapy and intervention but how many of the do you think are going to actively seek this out or who are going to have friends who try to stage something like this? They are far too concerned with their academics and social lives to think of this as a problem.

  • austin g

    austin g

    March 24th, 2012 at 4:50 AM

    Hey, and haven’t we all heard stories of the selling their own meds for money and other kids are taking them and getting high?

  • Carleigh t

    Carleigh t

    March 24th, 2012 at 8:11 AM

    I have friends who use stimulants to get by in college- there is never enough time to get the sleep that you need, so they use these to keep them up and moving when the rest of us are dead to the world. I get kind of scared sometimes thinking of what’s gonna happen to them when they finally crash and burn, but most of them have just shrugged it off and said that they couldn’t manage to get through the classes and the load of work if they didn’t have that little bit of help on the side. I don’t know, because I manage to do ok without it, but it has been in the back of my mind to wonder if I could do even better with it though. I just don’t want to get hooked on something that I had to depend on to keep going the way that most of them do.

  • hart


    March 25th, 2012 at 5:24 AM

    guess that the adhd diagnosis is driving them to seek anything that will help them to cope. unfortunately many of the students then develop a dependency on the drugs that they will later in life outside of the college setting find difficult to shed

  • RYAN


    March 25th, 2012 at 5:54 AM

    I would have thought those with ADHD would find no real interest in drugs and the addiction factor would be minimized for them. But it seems like those with such disorders are at a great risk with substances.

  • Erica


    March 26th, 2012 at 4:24 AM

    If a counselor knows that this has been a problem in the past, then why go and make it worse by prescribing them all over again? There are some kids who can handle this and some who can’t- why throw fuel on the fire and harm those for whom this could obviously be a problem?

  • Thomas


    March 27th, 2012 at 4:22 AM

    For many college students this is going to be their way of breaking the mold of who they were in high school and a way to reinvent themselves into something different than they have ever been. Maybe they think this will make them more outgoing, friendlier, open to new experiences, popular, whatever they are wanting. I know that this is not the answer, but for an 18 year old looking to break out of the box, this can on the surface seem to be the answer. There definitely needs to be more intervention and prevention on college campuses, but i think that ultimately it all begins before that. Giving young people the self esteem that they need to be able to turn away from this and not rely on drugs has to be the solution in the end.

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