Why Are So Many Young People Risking their Health by Abusing ADHD Medications?

By Hugh C. McBride

They don’t promise a mind-blowing high or a consciousness-expanding experience.

They won’t make the bad thoughts go away or the good feelings last longer.

They don’t even offer the countercultural cache of marijuana, the dangerous allure of heroin, or the peace and love vibe of Ecstasy.

So, why are ADHD medications being abused by young people with such stunning regularity in the United States today?

A Growing Problem

If the 1960s can be described as a “marijuana decade” and the 1980s can be defined by rampant cocaine abuse, then the first 10 years of the 21st century may someday be seen as a time of overwhelming abuse of prescription medications.

At the same time that awareness initiatives and enforcement efforts have resulted in reduced rates of drug abuse involving illicit substances such as heroin, cocaine and marijuana, experts have noted a disturbing rise in the prevalence of prescription pill abuse by teenagers and young adults.

Consider the following statistics from the website of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

  • Between 1985 and 2000, the number of young people ages 12 to 25 who abused prescription painkillers such as oxycodone (OxyContin) or hydrocodone (Vicodin) for the first time rose from 400,000 to two million.
  • Between 1998 and 2000, the number of emergency room visits related to the improper use of Vicodin rose 48 percent, while the number of ER visits due to OxyContin increased by 108 percent.
  • Prescriptions for ADHD medications increased by 72 percent between 1995 and 2000.

At the dawn of the current century, young people were abusing prescription medications at a then-record rate, and were becoming increasingly familiar with the use of drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall (the two most popular ADHD medications).

Clearly, the stage was set for increases in the abuse of ADHD drugs, though few experts likely predicted the degree to which this form of prescription drug abuse would plague the nation’s younger generations.

Easy Access

As more and more young people discover the ease of raiding their parents’ medicine cabinets or making purchases from illicit online pharmacies, rates of prescription drug abuse by adolescents continue to increase.

In the past, engaging in recreational drug abuse often required knowing a drug dealer and making in-person purchases. Today, prescription pills can be acquired in far less intimidating ways – and the familiarity that most young people have with both prescription and over-the-counter medications leads many to assume an even greater false sense of security when it comes to unapproved and unsupervised use.

Drug Abuse as a Means of Self-Improvement?

With relatively easy access to powerful medications, and having grown up during a time of increased legitimate use of these drugs, it is hardly surprising that many teenagers aren’t averse to experimenting with a pill or two.

This phenomenon is particularly acute when it comes to the popular ADHD medications Ritalin and Adderall, which have been promoted as “wonder drugs” that can dramatically improve the quality of life for young people (and adults) who struggle with focus, concentration and other cognitive challenges.

Having seen their peers begin to experience academic success after being prescribed what look to the untrained eye like fairly harmless pills, many students find themselves understandably tempted to see what these substances can do for them.

Writer Andrew Jacobs addressed this issue in a July 31, 2005 New York Times article:

Since Ritalin abuse first hit the radar screen several years ago, the reliance on prescription stimulants to enhance performance has risen, becoming almost as commonplace as No-Doz, Red Bull and maybe even caffeine.

As many as 20 percent of college students have used Ritalin or Adderall to study, write papers and take exams, according to recent surveys focused on individual campuses.

A study … by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia found that the number of teenagers who admit to abusing prescription medications tripled from 1992 to 2003, while in the general population such abuse had doubled.

In an April 20 blog post on Stanford University’s “Wellsphere” website, a self-described recent college graduate identified as Amanda T. provided a more personal account of the perceived benefits of ADHD medications among often overwhelmed students.

“Medications such as Adderall make an all-nighter seem easy. In fact, in a world where the work load exceeds the amount of hours in a day, such medications are often viewed as a miracle drug to many college students,” she wrote. “You can cram for two exams all day and then are still able to stay up all night and write that 50 page research paper that you put off until the very last minute.”

Hardly Harmless

When used improperly, ADHD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall can cause myriad unpleasant and dangerous side effects, including respiratory problems, rapid heartbeat, delusions, paranoia and hallucinations. These drugs can be addictive, which means that sudden abstinence can also lead to the onset of withdrawal symptoms.

If you suspect that your child is abusing Ritalin, Adderall, another ADHD medication or any other type of prescription or over-the-counter drug, you need to intervene immediately. Substance abuse is never a harmless activity – and even though some students are abusing ADHD meds for the seemingly “noble” purpose of improving their academic abilities, this behavior remains both illegal and ill advised.