Prescription stimulants are in great demand to treat the symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a couple of other mental disorders, but they are also in great demand among students who want help improving their grades. Teens and young adults who misuse prescription stimulants may not be aware that using stimulants can carry health and legal risks.
Stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin can help patients with ADHD, depression and narcolepsy, helping people to compose their thoughts, maintain focus or keep things organized. The thorny issue is that these drugs will sharpen anyone’s level of mental alertness even if they do not suffer with any condition. That means a little pill can help any student pay better attention in class, more effectively recall learned information and stay awake for cram sessions.
A national study used to follow teenage alcohol and drug use has shown that misuse of prescription stimulants is a growing problem. The study revealed that 1.6 percent of eighth graders, 2.9 percent of high school sophomores and 3.4 percent of high school seniors are abusing prescription stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall. A year-long study in 2008 revealed that 9 percent of high school students and 35 percent of university students were using pharmaceuticals sans prescription to help them do better.
Using prescription medications to increase cognitive function and alertness is referred to as neuroenhancement, and it’s a serious enough to warrant the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) to create an Ethics, Law and Humanities Committee.
The committee found that abusing prescription stimulants for the purpose of neuroenhancement was medically risky, being positively linked to cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure, increased heart rate and, in some cases, heart failure. Abusing stimulants can also cause insomnia, loss of appetite, involuntary twitching, headache, emotional instability and other central nervous system problems.
Addiction is of course another possibility, and when combined with caffeine, over-the-counter drugs or alcohol the risk-potential increases. A troubling number of emergency room visits across the country have been linked to the misuse and abuse of these powerful medications.
The committee’s findings led to recommendations by the AAN against prescribing stimulants to patients for reasons of neuroenhancement. While important in terms of defining the ethics of medical practice, the public peer urging will do little to curb the current trend of stimulant abuse. Most students obtain the drugs from a source other than the family doctor. The aforementioned national study found that close to 30 percent of high school and college students with legitimate prescriptions for Ritalin or Adderall had been requested by fellow students to give or sell their medications.
Handing out or selling personal medication has negative consequences for the legitimate patient as well as for the student looking to illicitly obtain stimulant drugs – the distributor can be charged with practicing medicine without a license, and the obtainee could get charged with felony possession.
Physicians need to carefully screen patients who come into their offices seeking help for ADHD since plenty of young people will attempt to fake symptoms in order to obtain a prescription. Students who have been prescribed stimulants need to be aware that sharing their medication with others puts them at risk for legal action, and healthy teens looking to use stimulants for neuroenhancement should beware of the physical and legal risks.