The Rise of ADHD as Study Aids
ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a common childhood disorder that features symptoms of hyperactive or impulsive behavior and/or symptoms of a lack of normal focus and attention. Although it may seem counterintuitive, medications commonly used to treat ADHD – including Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) – achieve their beneficial effects by stimulating the brain. Unfortunately, the stimulating effects of these medications make them a target for abuse by people who don’t have ADHD. Increasingly, students in both high school and college engage in this kind of abuse and use ADHD drugs as non-sanctioned “study aids.”
ADHD Drug Basics
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Ritalin and Adderall achieve their effects by gradually boosting the brain’s levels of an important chemical called dopamine, which helps regulate attention span, body movements, and your ability to experience pleasure. When dopamine levels rise slowly and steadily, they make changes in the brain’s communications networks that can lead to a reduction in hyperactivity and help improve the ability to pay attention.
However, rapid increases in dopamine levels can lead to a chemical dependence inside the body. Dependence occurs when your body starts to rely on the presence of a medication in order to feel “normal,” and lack of the medication makes you feel ill or “off.” Potential withdrawal symptoms that can indicate the presence of stimulant dependence include depression, nightmares, unusual fatigue, irritability, panic attacks, and an abnormally high appetite. Typically, ADHD patients can avoid any rapid spikes in their dopamine levels – and therefore avoid any related dependence risks – by only using Ritalin, Adderall or similar medications in low, medically appropriate dosages. For this reason, these drugs are only legally available through a prescription from a licensed doctor.
ADHD as a Study Aid
In people who don’t have ADHD, Ritalin, Adderall and other stimulants used for ADHD treatment can potentially enhance the ability to focus and stay alert for extended periods of time. Students without ADHD sometimes take advantage of these effects in an attempt to improve their scholastic performance and gain an advantage in highly competitive classroom environments. By its very nature, this use of ADHD drugs qualifies as a form of drug abuse. Abuse can turn into dependence if a student repeatedly takes enough Ritalin or Adderall to rapidly increase dopamine levels inside the brain.
Abuse Among High School Students
In 2012, the National Institute on Drug Abuse released the results of a long-term study that examined drug use patterns among U.S. high school students from 1975 to 2011. The study organizers found that prescription stimulant use among high school students as a whole reached its peak in the early 1980s and has tapered off significantly since that time. In 2011, only roughly 12 percent of all high school seniors self-reported the abuse of a prescription stimulant at any point in their four years of school, and only 8 percent reported stimulant abuse in their senior year. However, students who attend academically prestigious or competitive high schools buck this trend and use stimulants with increasing frequency. Depending on the specific location, anywhere from 15 to 40 percent of kids in these scholastic environments report abusing ADHD stimulant medications
Abuse Among College Students
According to a recent survey conducted jointly by the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Duke University, roughly 9 percent of all college students use ADHD stimulants as study aids without any type of valid prescription. However, usage rates are significantly higher at some schools. For instance, in 2011, researchers at the University of Kentucky reported that roughly 30 percent of all students at the school abuse Ritalin, Adderall, or other stimulant medications. The abuse rate among juniors and seniors at the school – who typically have more challenging academic course loads- was 50 percent, while the abuse rate among fraternity and sorority members reached 80 percent. The usage rates for ADHD medications at the university were higher than the usage rates for marijuana.
Many high school and college students downplay the risks of ADHD medication abuse or are unaware that any real risks exist. For example, just like many adults, many students believe that all prescription medications pose fewer dangers than illegal drugs simply because they come from doctors. In fact, according to the 2011 study at the University of Kentucky, students who abuse ADHD medications commonly consider these medications only slightly more dangerous than a can of caffeinated soda and far less dangerous than smoking or drinking. In addition, many students don’t know that Ritalin and Adderall are categorized as Schedule 2 drugs by the U.S. government, which means that they present roughly the same potential for abuse or addiction as cocaine and opiates such as morphine and oxycodone.