As midterm season looms, so does the familiar set of “hell week” studying rituals that accompany it: late nights in Perkins, frantic read-throughs of textbooks, high-dose coffee binges and, for some students, the abuse of prescription ADHD drugs. A 2009 study found that nine percent of the student body illicitly uses ADHD medications like Adderall, Ritalin and Concerta, most commonly to improve concentration while studying. Such prescription drug abuse raises not only moral concerns about academic fairness, but also questions about the kind of campus culture that might drive struggling students to seek dangerous resources in order to achieve academic success.
From a strictly rules-based point of view, the abuse of ADHD amphetamine drugs is clearly wrong. The Office of Student Conduct lists unauthorized drug use as an act of cheating under the Duke Community Standard. Morally speaking, using drugs to enhance academic performance is akin to peeking over a neighbor’s shoulder during a test—it confers an undeserved and unnatural advantage to the user, and is clearly wrong. Just as athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs in order to gain advantages are harshly sanctioned, scholars who do the shame should be treated no differently. In an institution built on academic integrity, students should not be able to rely on illicit substances to earn their Duke degrees.
Although performance-enhancing prescription drug abuse poses serious moral problems at Duke, instituting harsh administrative punishments for it would only be a Band-Aid fix for deeper underlying problems. A better solution would address the root causes that lead students to abuse prescription drugs. At Duke, the pressure to succeed can often push students to try to go beyond what they are capable of, committing themselves to ever-increasing academic, social and extracurricular demands. Yet rather than prioritizing tasks, students are pushed around by a “work hard, play hard” culture that tells them to go out all weekend and spend hours upon hours cramming in Perkins on Sunday. As work piles up, they become stressed out and sleep deprived, which can lead to difficulty concentrating; this creates a vicious cycle of falling behind in which prescription drugs become a tempting recourse.
To combat prescription drug abuse, Duke can provide more resources for the many students on campus struggling with stress, time management and finding balance. Educating and equipping students with proper lifestyle skills can go a long way in dismantling counterproductive habits. Building on visits from Ariana Huffington and James Maas in the past year, the university should invite more sleep experts to campus to educate students about the critical nature of rest, and its links to productivity, happiness and health. These experts, well versed in talking to college students, have developed the ability to cut through students’ resignation to being nocturnal in college and convince them that the “work hard, play hard” lifestyle isn’t an inevitable fate; that cutting down on productivity-killing schedule overload is a good way to ensure that students find themselves with an adequate number of hours for sleep; that being busy for the sake of being busy is not necessary. Alongside those sleep experts, campus institutions like CAPS or DUWELL could organize events and workshops on time management and sleep habits, offering students practical guidance on how to maximize productivity and take care of themselves.
Prescription drug abuse on campus should be treated as a public health as well as cultural issue. Tackling it requires not just convincing students that it is morally wrong, but combating the root cause of it—the myth that students can and should try to “have it all.”
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