There has been a lot of chatter over the last year, about the rate at which doctors are diagnosing and medicating ADHD. In today’s article, education specialist Valerie Harris takes a look at how the influx of attention-sharpening meds is impacting high school and college students, particularly when it comes to brain chemistry issues. Ms. Harris writes a lot about hazards that college students face. The rise of so-called “study drug” dependencies is certainly an issue that extends beyond the walls of academia, though, and is something that those in the medical profession should be thinking about.
Physicians today warn that a significant number of college students are abusing Adderall, Ritalin and other prescription drugs. Despite unpleasant side effects and strong potential for long-term health problems, young men and women take Adderall to improve their concentration and boost academic performance. To mitigate this widespread issue, educational leaders are encouraging students to adopt healthy study habits that will allow them to earn high grades without sacrificing their physical and mental health.
Adderall, commonly prescribed to patients who suffer from narcolepsy or attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), contains amphetamines that work against hyperactive and inattentive tendencies produced by the brain and nervous system. Adderall is highly effective in treating these disorders. However, a 2011 report by CNN found that as many as 30 percent of today’s collegiate population has tried the drug, including 50 percent of juniors and seniors and 80 percent of fraternity and sorority members.
Physicians note several adverse side effects linked to Adderall abuse, including heart palpitations and murmurs, chronic headaches, loss of appetite, diminished sex drive and insomnia. Doctors also warn that individuals with certain pre-existing conditions, such as epilepsy, high blood pressure or congenital heart defects, who take Adderall are prone to stroke, heart failure or even death. Long-term health problems include chronic depression, anxiety and mood disorders. In addition, Adderall – like most prescribed narcotics – are habit-forming, and long-term use can lead to addiction. For this reason, the federal government categorizes Adderall and other amphetamines as “schedule II Drugs”, which carry “the highest abuse potential and dependence profile of all drugs that have medical utility”; cocaine and morphine are listed in the same category.
However, an increasingly competitive college environment has led many students to take study drugs as a means of improving academic performance. The pressure for good grades has even caused Adderall addiction to spill into the nation’s high schools, where students must earn high marks on SAT exams and standardized tests in order to attend college after graduation. The result, as family therapist Paul L. Hokemeyer told The New York Times, is a high number of young people who succeed in school – but face long-term struggles later in life. “Children have prefrontal cortexes that are not fully developed, and we’re changing the chemistry of the brain,” he said. “It’s one thing if you have a real deficiency — the medicine is really important to those people — but not if your deficiency is not getting into Brown.”
In an article titled “A Misuser’s Guide to Adderall,” Harvard Crimson reporter Lawrence H. Diller notes that the drug’s effectiveness in treating disorders like ADHD should not be confused as an ability to actually improve academic performance for everyone. Rather, he writes, Adderall “improves motivation” and raises the student’s confidence – but studies show that the drug does little to boost complex skills like reading comprehension. “This positive sense, which can become grandiose and manic, may be the strongest contribution to the real improved performance,” he wrote. “Despite the short-term academic gains, there is no evidence that Adderall improves learning overall or that short-term gains in learning persist without the continued use of the drug.”