The New York Times ran a front-page article delivering the following news: There’s a drug problem among high school students. On its face, this is hardly breaking news, but the NYT’s Alan Schwarz wasn’t writing about the recreational drugs you might expect.
In fact, he writes, the number of teens abusing prescription stimulants like Adderall, Vyvanse and Ritalin to improve their academic performance is increasing. The drugs, usually prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), have found an underground demand among students who have found results such as “laser focus, instant recall and the fortitude to crush any test in her path.”
One student interviewed for the piece estimated that a third of her classmates used stimulants without a prescription to boost their performance, and Schwarz reports that many students across the United States made similar estimates for usage rates at their schools, emphasizing that the drugs were used by students trying to compete in increasingly pressure-filled academic environments.
According to IMS Health, a health care information company interviewed by the Times, 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.
Perhaps the most troubling story behind these numbers is that the beneficiaries of the prescriptions may be lying to get them – complaining of ADHD-like symptoms in order to get the pills, then selling them to academic-minded students at a significant markup. And those students, as the story relates, are taking increasing doses as they build a tolerance, and even snorting them to get quicker results.
The reality, says Matthew Herper at Forbes, is that the drugs work. The Times article, he said, “perpetuates the idea that these drugs calm kids with ADHD down, but have a different effect on healthy people. Actually, the drugs do exactly the same thing in people whether they are hyperactive, have problems paying attention, or are healthy. They improve focus by increasing the levels of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain that regulates attention and behavior.” It’s understandable, he says, that kids “desperate for an academic advantage would turn to stimulants.”
Of course, he warns of the dangers of abusing drugs like these, too: “For the kids who are getting pills from their buddies, things are more dangerous, partly because they use too much […] And these drugs can be addictive.”
In a Huffington Post piece, behavioral and developmental pediatrician Dr. Lawrence Diller writes that a major concern in the stimulant debate is the number of parents encouraging their kids to use academic performance-enhancing drugs. “The ethics and fairness of using performance-enhancing drugs is routinely challenged in sports but hardly discussed in academics. Somehow it's okay to use a drug to improve your school performance if there's a disorder, but it's ‘cheating’ if you don't have a real problem and are just using it because you want to get ahead or you're a slacker.”
Doctors and families, he says, need to “come clean” about the ADD diagnosis. But is it enough to scrutinize the doctors who regularly upgrade diagnoses, and for parents to be more vigilant about their kids’ use? Have you talked to your teen about stimulant use in his or her high school?