Should Parents Be Panicked About Adderall?

By  | 

I know more than a few people with a prescription for Adderall. They may use it to help them focus if they have ADD or ADHD. They say they like how it helps them get things done, even if they don’t like all of the side effects. But when it comes to test time or other periods where focus is imperative, they’re sure to use it. Easier on the stomach than caffeine, they say.

But the New York Times wants to scare parents into an Adderall panic.

In a 3,500-word article, we’re told that this is a huge new threat that should freak parents out:

While these medicines tend to calm people with A.D.H.D., those without the disorder find that just one pill can jolt them with the energy and focus to push through all-night homework binges and stay awake during exams afterward. “It’s like it does your work for you,” said William, a recent graduate of the Birch Wathen Lenox School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

But abuse of prescription stimulants can lead to depression and mood swings (from sleep deprivation), heart irregularities and acute exhaustion or psychosis during withdrawal, doctors say. Little is known about the long-term effects of abuse of stimulants among the young. Drug counselors say that for some teenagers, the pills eventually become an entry to the abuse of painkillers and sleep aids…

At high schools across the United States, pressure over grades and competition for college admissions are encouraging students to abuse prescription stimulants, according to interviews with students, parents and doctors. Pills that have been a staple in some college and graduate school circles are going from rare to routine in many academically competitive high schools, where teenagers say they get them from friends, buy them from student dealers or fake symptoms to their parents and doctors to get prescriptions.

Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of children using any type of drug, for study or otherwise. I understand that some children (and adults) need help with their mental problems, but in general, I’d steer away from using substances, particularly before your brain is completely developed.

Still, this story seemed like just the latest in a long line of scare stories about the latest drug kids are using (only a week ago, it was bath salts, right?). Are the data conclusive about this being a problem drug? You’ll notice the lack of data in the excerpt above, although the anecdotes in the piece are terrifying.

Time magazine reports that the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future study has compiled stats on drug use from tens of thousands of people since 1975, with an 83% response state. The New York Times says they contacted 200 students, parents and school administrators for the story and got a 20% response.

MTF data shows clearly that we are not even close to the all time peak of misuse of prescription stimulants by high-school students, which occurred in the early 1980s. In 1981, 32% of all high-school seniors reported having taken such a drug, with 26% having used it within the past year and 15% in the past month. At that time, a staggering 1.2% of seniors were taking prescription amphetamine or Ritalin illegally every single day.

By 2011, the rates had plummeted: just 12% of high-schools seniors reported ever having misused a prescription stimulant, with only 8% using in the last year and a mere 4% in the last month. Less than half a percent (0.4%) took the drugs daily. Between 2010 and 2011, a 1% rise in annual use was seen, but it’s not clear whether this is just a statistical blip. Overall, the trend of prescription-stimulant misuse is down dramatically.

The New York Times mentions the data but dismisses it as not representative of the elite schools they’re profiling. You don’t say. But if the world survived drug use four times the rate in the New York Times story only 20 years ago, we can probably survive a bit of Adderall. Time Also quotes psychologist Vaughn Walker discussing a drug scare just like this back in the 1930s:

In 1937, none other than the The New York Times ran a story about benzedrine calling it a ‘high octane brain fuel’ and noting that without it the brain ‘does not run on all cylinders.’ It was clearly pitched as a cognitive enhancer.

Shortly after Time magazine ran a story specifically on how it was being used by college students to cram for final exams.

Suddenly, there was a boom in students using benzedrine, leading the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association to condemn the press coverage for promoting the widespread use of drug, as previously its use was a niche activity.

In a way, it’s comforting to know that the journalistic hackery of drug scares is as old as it is. But let’s be cautious before we decide to go into a full-fledged Adderall panic.

(Photo: luskiv/Shutterstock)