The use of “study drugs,” or specifically prescription stimulants, among students without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is on the rise. Some students use these drugs in order to deal with the challenging demands of college, hoping it will improve focus and performance and allow them to stay up all night to study, work or keep up with social obligations.
Each year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Human Health and Human Services, conducts national surveys of drug usage and summarizes its findings as indicators of national trends. In its 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report, SAMHSA included statistics on estimates of teens and young adults who had used illicit drugs, including the stimulant Adderall, which is the most commonly prescribed drug to treat ADHD.
SAMSHA estimated that 30.5 million teens 12 and older used an illicit drug at least once last year. Of those, 1.8 million teens misused prescription stimulants at least once. Approximately 123,000 teens 12 to 17 were reported to be current misusers of stimulants, and 715,000 young adults 18 to 25 were current misusers. The most alarming of those numbers is the 715,000 young adults who classified themselves as current misusers of prescription stimulants, including Adderall.
Though the numbers paint a grim picture of the realities facing college students today, parents of high schoolers should take things in stride and help prepare their teens for college by talking to them about the dangers of misusing Adderall.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, students with ADHD generally exhibit the following symptoms: difficulty paying attention, overactivity (hyperactivity) and acting without thinking (impulsive behaviors). To treat ADHD, doctors prescribe stimulant drugs like Adderall to help people manage their symptoms and have productive days.
Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1996, Adderall is the trade name given to a class of drugs called psycho stimulants. It is a mixture of amphetamine salts (distinguished from methamphetamines that are more potent).
It is believed that stimulants, such as Adderall, are effective in treating ADHD because they increase dopamine, a chemical in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter by sending messages, inspiring people to act or not act in certain ways. Dopamine plays essential roles in thinking and attention. Psychologists today have determined that dopamine is also responsible for our expectations in life.
Adderall may produce various side effects, according to George Washington University professor and psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman. Those side effects include: an increase in mood; such as happiness or extreme happiness (euphoria); an increase in energy and motivation; and weight loss. As long as college students are properly diagnosed with ADHD by a doctor, prescribed Adderall for treatment and follow the dosage and exact regimen prescribed by the doctor, that is all considered lawful use of the Adderall drug.
Misuse of Adderall, however, is reported when college students who have no diagnosis of ADHD and were not seen by a doctor illegally obtain Adderall under the misguided beliefs that it will increase their dopamine levels and therefore, improve academic performance and productivity.
In his work in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Lieberman has learned that roughly one out of three college students currently take Adderall, despite the fact that none of those students have seen a doctor or have been formally diagnosed with ADHD. Lieberman believes the illicit use of Adderall among college students is increasing as evidenced by the surge in emergency room visits reported across the nation.
When asked why he believes non-ADHD- diagnosed college students voluntarily choose to take Adderall, Lieberman commented: “Adderall is a study drug, not a recreational drug. It makes it easier [for students] to study and get their work done.” He emphatically noted that Adderall is “a great medication if used properly.” However, when students who are not diagnosed with ADHD choose to take Adderall for the purpose of doing better academically, “they are only cheating themselves.”
Lieberman noted a 2018 medical study from Pharmacy journal, which documented the effects of Adderall on non-ADHD-diagnosed college students. The study concluded that college students without a formal diagnosis of ADHD who choose to take Adderall without a prescription do not gain improvement in focus, concentration or long-term memory. In fact, it showed that Adderall does just the opposite, causing otherwise healthy college students to have decreases in short-term memory.
Interestingly, Lieberman refers to Adderall as a “lazy drug” because it causes people to believe and act as if they don’t have to put forth the same mental effort to do things, supporting today’s modern expectation theory on dopamine. He compares the laziness to the analogy of using the escalators every day. If a person chooses to use the escalator every day instead of using their legs to walk up and down the stairs, over time, increased escalator usage will weaken the legs, making it difficult to use the stairs.
After extensively researching the results of dopamine in a person’s brain and the effects of using the Adderall drug to increase dopamine (and therefore treat the person diagnosed with ADHD), Lieberman concluded that “if a person does not have ADHD, Adderall will not improve performance.”
Parents and teens alike need to be aware of the information and dire statistics of non-ADHD- diagnosed college students taking Adderall illegally for the purpose of having extra energy to work more efficiently in school. It could be something as simple as talking to your teen’s pediatrician and school counselors and keeping abreast of current social trends. (An excellent source of information for parents is the “Addiction Blog,” from the American Addiction Centers.)
It’s always appropriate to ask questions, Lieberman says. If parents and teens hear about a college student who is taking Adderall and has exhibited erratic behavior, ask how that student obtained Adderall. Was it illegally? Lieberman refers to this as “students getting [Adderall] on the sly, usually from a friend who gets it from a doctor.” The American Addiction Centers refers to this as “prescription diversion.”
As with any other social problem facing teens today, the first barrier to the problem lies with the parents. Parents must open all channels of communication with their teens. Talk to them freely and openly about anything going on in the teens’ lives, Lieberman says. If parents hear about trends in illicit drug use, share those findings with your teen children. Help prepare your teens for college by opening their eyes to the real current dangers of illicit use of the Adderall drug.
Open communication with a loving, gentle approach with teens may stop them from becoming a part of the statistic of college students who use Adderall without a prescription.