Now that school is starting, I want to share a front page June 10 story from the New York Times. “The Rise of the Good Grade Pill” provides a jolting view into today’s competitive and stress-filled teenage existence – too often fueled by prescription drug abuse. It describes the common sharing (and selling) of amphetamines like Adderall and Ritalin, prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), that help kids “tunnel focus” for tests and college applications; and it is happening at both public and private schools across the country.
“Everyone in school either has a prescription or has a friend who does,” said one boy in the article. Teens say they get pills from friends, buy them from student dealers, or fake symptoms to their parents and doctors in order to get prescriptions. “They’re the quote-unquote good kids, basically,” said one high school senior who was quoted.
The New York Times article continues to describe the downside of drug abuse: hallucinations, convulsions, emergency room visits, and drug rehabilitation. “No one seems to thinks that it’s the real thing,” quoted one boy who has been in drug rehab. “The other kids in rehab thought we weren’t addicts because Adderall wasn’t a real drug. It’s so underestimated.”
At high schools across the United States, pressure over grades and competition for college admissions are encouraging students to abuse prescription stimulants, according to interviews with students, parents, and doctors. Pills that have been a staple in some college and graduate school circles are going from rare to routine in many high schools. While these medicines tend to calm people with ADHD, those without the disorder find that just one pill can jolt them with the energy and focus to push through all-night homework binges and stay awake during exams afterward.
Abuse of prescription stimulants can lead to depression and mood swings (from sleep deprivation), heart irregularities, and acute exhaustion or psychosis during withdrawal, doctors say. Little is known about the long-term effects of abuse of stimulants among the young. Drug counselors say that for some teenagers, the pills eventually become an entry to the abuse of painkillers and sleep aids.
The number of prescriptions for ADHD medications dispensed for young people ages 10 to 19 has risen 26 percent since 2007, to almost 21 million yearly, according to IMS Health, a health care information company — a number that experts estimate corresponds to more than two million individuals. But there is no reliable research on how many high school students take stimulants as a study aid. It is estimated that the portion of students who do so ranges from 15 percent to 40 percent.
Older ADHD drugs required low doses every few hours, and schools, not wanting students to carry the drugs themselves, had the school nurse hold and dispense the pills. Newer long-lasting versions like Adderall XR and Vyvanse allow parents to give children a single dose in the morning, often unaware that the pills can go down a pants pocket as easily as the throat. Some students said they took their pills only during the week and gave their weekend pills to friends. A high school senior who has used his friend’s Adderall for school said: “These are academic steroids. But parents don’t usually get the steroids for you.”