At MIT, Ritalin Use on Par With Peer Schools; Formal Disciplinary Action is Rare

“If you’ve ever been like super ridiculous caffeinated and drank two Rockstars and didn’t have anything to eat, sort of get that brain fuzz and can’t look at anything straight and everything is peripheral vision; that’s how being on Ritalin feels to me.”

Duncan, a freshman at MIT, is just one of many students around the United States who have taken Ritalin. While Duncan was on it legally for a couple of weeks with a prescription from his doctor for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it ended up not working for him.

Ritalin, a stimulant that is primarily used to treat hyperactivity and attention problems, is also sometimes misused as a study aid.

While some studies suggest that competitive schools located in the Northeast see the highest use of Ritalin in the nation, a more recent 2006 survey of MIT students conducted by the American College Health Association shows that MIT’s stimulant abuse is actually in-line with that of the national average. But with the sudden pressure and difficulty of MIT, speculation is that students may be enticed to obtain the drug from their peers, often around exam week, or come to believe that they might in fact have ADHD, due to a perceived difficulty to focus on coursework.

If the administration finds a student using Ritalin without a prescription, however, they will likely focus on the student’s health and send the student to mental health services rather than take disciplinary action, said to David W. Randall, Assistant Dean of Student Support Services (S^3).

“Drug abuse, including abuse of prescription drugs, happens at all college campuses,” said Randall. “It doesn’t happen here at any greater frequency than other colleges.”

Ritalin use is average at MIT

MIT numbers are in fact in line with the national average. The 2006 survey at MIT found that only four percent of students had tried a stimulant like Ritalin in order to enhance their academic performance in the past year, while seven percent admitted to trying it at some point in their life. A national survey conducted by the American College Health Association in 2008 found that 5.6 percent of students had tried a stimulant. MIT has just conducted a new survey about drug, alcohol and stimulant abuse that will be available this spring.

When asked why he thought students turn to Ritalin for academic reasons, Daniel A. Trujillo, the assistant dean of the Community Development and Substance Abuse Center said that students at MIT are “very bright and high functioning” but “then there’s an experience when students come to college and have a had a certain high school experience.” They realize “I’m not able to perform; I haven’t had this problem before.”

Randall, the S^3 dean, said, “I think in competitive environments, also competitive colleges, MIT included, there is some pressure to find a leg up and Ritalin seems like a quick leg up. In the long term it doesn’t have the benefit students think it would.”

Some students find themselves struggling when they enter MIT and try to turn to a medical solution. Dr. Kristine A. Girard ’86, the Chief Associate of Mental Health, said that sometimes students come to MIT Medical thinking they have ADHD. Mostly, they don’t, and the students are turned away with recommendations to improve their study habits. Sometimes, Medical will diagnose ADHD where it has not previously been diagnosed.

When students were “younger and weren’t causing a disruption, they were overlooked because the work wasn’t so demanding, and they didn’t have to pay attention fully to perform well grade-wise” Girard said.

Once they get to MIT they often “find that it actually is hard to stay at the top of the class” and may “not be able to take information in during lecture,” she said.

Trends of Ritalin abuse

Unlike Duncan, others may use Ritalin just as an experimental drug. Since it is so readily available on college campuses through other students and dormitories, many students think “If it’s available and I know I’m going to have a late night, maybe I should consider using this because I’ve heard it might help,” Trujillo said.

According to Trujillo, Ritalin abuse is more widespread in the northeast and men are twice as likely as women to take it. The most common users of Ritalin are Caucasian and Hispanic, with a much higher usage rate than those of Asian/Pacific Islander or African American descent. These stimulants are most popular with students who have a B-/C average, “students who feel like they need an edge” he said.

Yet, Ritalin abuse “doesn’t happen terribly often” Trujillo said, saying that people who use Ritalin are “typically not recurring users.”

Around midterms or finals students “may try it once or twice and may not try it again.” Trujillo said.

Girard said Ritalin use is “not typically in the top three concerns” at Medical she said, though they do see a number of students come in with a legitimate prescription from ADHD, saying it might be one of the top health issues students may have.

Experiences on campus

Asked whether or not they think Ritalin abuse is prevalent at MIT, students said no.

“I don’t think many people at MIT do it without a prescription” Nargiss Mouatta ’13 said, adding that she had never heard of anyone taking it.

However, students do try to get a hold of the drugs.

Sometimes students “look online and come in with a story” in order to get the drug, Girard said. “Doctors are pretty good at reading people,” she said, and can “get the sense they want a prescription.” “We know there’s borrowing,” she said.

According to Girard, approximately 51 percent of students taking Ritalin will be asked to share drugs. For example, Duncan noted that he was approached by a friend while taking Ritalin.

“I think I told him that I had gotten a prescription. Later, he was like ‘Dude, give me some Ritalin.’ He offered to split the profits,” Duncan said “but my parents kept it under lock and key. They knew how many tablets there were supposed to be in the jar. If there were fewer, my ass was toast.”

Apart from friends, stimulants are available “all over the place, sometimes students look for resources online” said David Randall, associate dean of S^3.

Duncan stayed on Ritalin for three weeks without seeing any improvement. “I’ve seen like a bazillion psychologists,” he said, saying that he had “part of the symptoms” of Attention Deficit Disorder, but not all, so doctors have been reluctant to prescribe him the drug.

Eventually, he did get a prescription, but he found it to be useless.

“I’d drift off into space and start surfing the Internet. Being on Ritalin for me was like hyper focus, but for everything you don’t want to concentrate on,” he said. “I’d get totally locked in on randomly surfing the internet and be like, well, damn, that was four hours.” Duncan admitted that the main focus of his Internet explorations was usually

When Ritalin didn’t help his focus, Duncan turned to different drugs, like Nootropil, which he found on the Internet.

The drugs are “normally used to treat dementia but are commonly used off label to make you think better, help you concentrate, what not,” Duncan said. They “sort of helped my concentration” he said.

“I bought them from a reseller online,” Duncan said, “The FDA doesn’t regulate overseas pharmacies” and he was able to simply order them. He received around 80 doses for less than $50. Duncan said he took it for about a month with “basically no side effects.”

However, his parents eventually found it, “flipped out” and sat him down for an intervention talk.

No formal abuse policy

As Randall said, MIT has no formal policy on abusing Ritalin for academic or other recreational purposes. Unlike steroids and narcotics, a student found abusing cognitive enhancing stimulant will not be reprimanded and instead be referred straight to Mental Health.

“For the most part if someone has a problem with narcotics they would work with the Community Development and Substance Abuse Center (CDSA),” Dave Kennedy, Director of the Office of Student Citizenship Office said. “There are obviously exceptions, but most substance cases are treated as a health condition before disciplinary.”

“If someone is … caught by the police that’s one thing. If they’re caught by friends or by a housemaster is something else.” Randall said, “Our biggest concern would be for the students’ health and well being,” adding that S^3 would not refer a student to the MIT Police if they were found with a stimulant problem.

“S^3 collaborates very closely with [MIT Medical] Mental Health for students who identify as having drug problems,” Randall said. S^3 will work with each student on a “case by case basis,” reaching out to each student in a different way.

Trujillo said that a student coming to the administration through CDSA would be referred to Medical as well. “MIT takes a health focused approach” he said. The use of Ritalin is seen as “symptomatic of other underlying issues in the students’ life.”

Selling pills and other drugs, however, constitutes a bigger offense, Trujillo said. Those sorts of cases “go through the student conduct office and the committee on discipline.”

While MIT Medical “does not have a comprehensive substance abuse program” there are “clinicians who have expertise in substance issues,” Girard said.

Ritalin is a drug that should not be used without a prescription, she reminds the MIT community.

Students who have a drug problem can talk to S^3, the CDSA, Mental Health, or talk to a trusted faculty member such as an academic advisor or housemaster.