From 2008 to 2012, the number of Americans taking prescribed medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, rose by almost 36 percent. Overall, the number of U.S. residents identified as ADHD sufferers is approaching 10 million, which means the pharmaceutical drugs used to treat this disorder are more widely available than ever before. This proliferation of medicines to treat ADHD is controversial. Many suspect the disorder is being over-diagnosed and that powerful drugs are being handed out to children with relatively mild behavior problems. But even if we overlook this objection, and assume each person getting prescriptions for medications like Adderall and Ritalin needs them, there is another problem that can’t be so easily dismissed. In point of fact, ADHD drugs are not being used exclusively by medical patients with prescriptions, but are instead being diverted in massive quantities for personal or recreational use. Prescription drug abuse in the U.S. has become a runaway freight train, and a decent percentage of this malignant growth is being fueled by the misuse of ADHD medications, in particular Adderall and Ritalin. These drugs are stimulants that paradoxically help true ADHD sufferers calm down and focus, as long as doses are increased gradually so brain chemistry is not adversely affected. But the people abusing them aren’t looking for progressive neural change; they want the rapid boost of energy these drugs can deliver—and the euphoria that accompanies it—immediately, and not in a diluted form. Stimulants work by ramping up the brain’s production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with mental focus, movement and pleasure. If taken repeatedly in large quantities, such stimulants will flood the brain with dopamine, eventually corrupting natural cycles of manufacture and leaving users increasingly reliant on the drugs to keep them awake, alert and moving. This of course is how addiction develops, and a brain that learns to crave Adderall or Ritalin is every bit as helpless and dependent as a brain addicted to methamphetamine, cocaine or any other type of illicit stimulant.
ADHD Drug Abuse by the Numbers
While some kids will take anything to get high, adolescent abuse of Ritalin and Adderall is largely driven by the belief that these drugs can improve academic performance. This is more urban myth than reality; it is true that stimulants will heighten energy and focus in the short-term, but after the brain adjusts to the presence of such drugs, these effects are weakened and become more elusive. In the meantime, continual misuse of ADHD drugs will cause a number of side effects that don’t promote good health and undermine academic achievement, such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, paranoia, psychosis, hallucinations, high blood pressure, decreased appetite and extreme irritability. Habitual abuse of prescription drugs will inevitably lead to addiction, and once a young person reaches this stage, his or her performance in every area of life will range from less-than-stellar to downright disastrous. But myth or no, the belief that Ritalin and Adderall can boost grades and test scores remains widespread in adolescent circles, and the proof of this statement can be found in the statistics. A 2013 Partnership at Drugfree.org/MetLife Foundation survey found that 13 percent of American teens had abused Ritalin or Adderall at some point in their lives, which in raw numbers adds up to 2.7 million young people taking powerful pharmaceuticals without a prescription. This rate of abuse was 33 percent higher than what had been reported just five years prior, giving strong indication that we are in the midst of a growing epidemic of prescription drug abuse among youth. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s most recent Monitoring the Future publication reported that 9.7 percent of 12th graders, 6.2 percent of 10th graders and 2.9 percent of 8th graders had misused Ritalin and/or Adderall within the previous year, so the trend we are talking about here runs deep and indicates something more serious than casual experimentation. Kids taking ADHD drugs to help them with their grades in high school are likely to continue that activity in college, thereby increasing the risk that addiction will develop. Attitudes about ADHD drug abuse were also surveyed in the Partnership at Drugfree.org/MetLife Foundation study, and these findings help explain why Ritalin and Adderall misuse is so common. For not only do 26 percent of all teens believe ADHD drugs can improve grades and test performance, but, incredibly, one-third of American parents believe this as well. Approximately 27 percent of teens are convinced ADHD drugs are safer than illegal street drugs, even though their side effects when misused are virtually identical to those of other deadly substances. Presumably, parents share this attitude. From a historical perspective, the recent rise in Ritalin and Adderall use among teens is not overly remarkable. Back in 1981, 32 percent of high school seniors surveyed for the Monitoring the Future series admitted to using prescription stimulants without a prescription; about 15 percent had done so within the last month, and 1.2 percent were taking at least one of these drugs every day. In contrast, only about 0.4 percent of high school seniors are misusing Ritalin or Adderall on a daily basis right now, so despite the recent spike in abuse of these drugs, the current epidemic doesn’t come close to matching what was seen three decades ago. But this should not bring us comfort. The fact that this type of prescription drug abuse has been going on for generations shows just how persistent the belief that ADHD drugs can help academic performance really is. And if things could get so far out of control in the 1980s, who’s to say the problem may not continue to worsen in the contemporary era?
ADHD Addiction Can Be Vanquished
Teen addiction to Ritalin and Adderall is a nightmare that millions of people have been forced to live through. At this very moment, hundreds of thousands of American families are undoubtedly facing off against this fierce and deadly opponent. Drug and alcohol treatment centers have done the best they can to adjust to the new reality, where prescription medications are a grave and terrible threat. This is a great blessing; it means seasoned professionals are now well prepared to help kids abusing ADHD drugs regain control of their destiny. Getting adolescents suffering from prescription drug addiction into treatment as soon as possible will save futures and save lives, and no parent should be operating under the illusion that prescription drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are somehow safer than other addiction-inducing substances. Substance abuse is substance abuse, pure and simple—it is a problem that requires immediate medical intervention and comprehensive lifestyle alteration, regardless of which drug is responsible for creating the dependency.