Doctors often prescribe stimulants such as Adderall to patients diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but high school and college students, often without a prescription, use stimulants as a performance enhancer and study aid.
The rising trend of stimulant abuse in the U.S. doesn’t come without serious risks to students, as misuse of the drug can lead to severe health effects like cardiac arrest and stroke.
ADHD is a brain disorder that affects concentration and focus among individuals who suffer from it. According to data from the Center for Disease Control, nearly one out of every ten children in the U.S., or 6.1 million, are diagnosed with ADHD. The U.S. also has the highest rates of diagnosed ADHD in the world.
“The Pharmaceutical Industry…has ‘educated’ the population that…in America, if your goals and aspirations aren’t supported by your talent and personality, you become a candidate for the ADHD diagnosis and medication,” Lawrence Diller, a Behavioral-developmental pediatrician, and author told The College Post.
Adderall comes from the same family of drugs (amphetamines) as meth but is also one of the main drugs used to treat ADHD, and studies have shown the drug to be an effective treatment that increases focus and reduces impulsive behaviors among students with ADHD.
Students diagnosed with ADHD are far from the only ones using Adderall, however, and many without prescriptions use it as a study aid in the face of intense pressure in a competitive academic environment.
It’s not evident the drug actually improves academic performance in any tangible way. One 2016 study found Adderall and other stimulants like Vyvanse and Ritalin not to be effective as a study aid among those without the disorder. Subjects of the study demonstrated “no increases in their GPAs and gained no detectable advantages over their peers.”
Adderall is also highly accessible to students without a prescription, and according to a recent study from Ohio State University, seven out of ten college students who use the drug without a prescription say it’s easy to obtain and most get the drug from their friends.
“For those over 18 years of age, more are using Adderall illegally, meaning they’ve either obtained it from a friend or bought it than are using it with a doctor’s prescription,” Diller said.
Diller described one instance in which his son, working on a story on Adderall misuse for his high school newspaper, went around campus looking for someone to buy the drug from to demonstrate its’ ease of accessibility.
“His job as part of his research was to try to score Adderall at his high school and he had not tried that before,” Diller said. “Within 20 minutes he was able to find someone who would either give it to him or sell it to him.”
Adderall, if used improperly can be dangerous. Because abuse of the drug can lead to stroke or cardiac arrest, packaging for the Adderall began featuring a “black box” warning in 2006, which is the most severe warning the FDA can add to a drug’s label information.
Adderall can also be highly addictive because it causes dopamine levels to increase among users, especially if they’re taking higher than prescribed doses. Abusing the drug regularly can lead users to become dependent on it and unable to function normally without it.
“As the number of people soars in terms of using the drug illegally, the number of people who become addicted to Adderall and similar drugs has grown very much in the last 10 years,” Diller said. “There are 400,000 projected Adderall addicts based on the CDC study from 2016 and I wouldn’t be surprised now if that’s half a million.”