More students taking ADHD drugs without prescriptions to improve academic performance

By Lucy Chen

Whitman students are no strangers to competitive academic atmospheres. Many dedicate long hours to work trying to cope with pressure from parents and peers to succeed. But danger arises when students engage in risky behavior to stay ahead of the game — in some cases, taking illegally-obtained ADHD drugs. Police arrested two students last month, one for ADHD drug possession and the other for illegal distribution of the substance.

Ritalin and Adderall, stimulants that share characteristics with cocaine and amphetamines, are the most commonly abused ADHD drugs. Both drugs improve the concentration and mental function of people with ADHD.

Sometimes referred to as “smart pills,” the drugs allow students to study longer and more efficiently and stay better focused during tests. Illegal users often abuse the drugs to achieve a high, increase focus or suppress appetite. 2.9 percent of U.S. high school sophomores and 3.4 percent of seniors used the drug for nonmedical purposes in the past year, according to a 2008 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Recent government and private studies have indicated that abuse of ADHD drugs is increasing on the high school level.

In an NIH study, 59.8 percent of college respondents reported taking ADHD drugs to improve studying effectiveness. 65.2 percent of respondents took the drugs to better concentrate, and 31 percent took them for recreational purposes.

An estimated 8 percent of children have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to the NIDA study. As a result, Ritalin and Adderall are fairly common and easy for teenagers to acquire.

It’s widely accepted that Whitman’s academic pressures are far beyond the standard. Junior Kai Valencia believes that pressure from parents, teachers and peers to succeed could push students to take the drugs illegally.

“I could sympathize with students who take the drugs illegally because as students, we’re put under a lot of pressure to perform at the highest level possible,” he said.

Indeed, the high rate of ADHD drug abuse may be due in part to external pressures. In a poll conducted by Nature, a science journal, 33 percent of the 1,400 adult respondents said they would feel pressure to give their child cognitive enhancement drugs if other children at school were taking them for non-medical purposes.

A study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley found that use of the drug among elementary school students with ADHD led to gains in math scores equal to a fifth of a school year in extra learning, and gains in reading equal to an additional third of a school year.

A growing number of students consider it safer to illegally take prescription drugs than to take drugs illegal in all circumstances, according to the Office of National Drug Control. The report emphasizes that just because prescription drugs are legal in certain circumstances, it does not indicate a higher level of safety for their use by the general public.

Ritalin and Adderall are prescription-only for a reason. The drugs come with some nasty side effects, including decreased appetite, difficulty sleeping, stomach-aches and headaches. With higher doses, rare side effects can include nausea, cardiovascular complications, high blood pressure, panic attacks, aggressive behavior, changes in personality and insomnia. More than 60 percent of people who reported weekly use of cognitive-enhancing drugs reported side effects, according to a study conducted by Nature. Although scientists note that Ritalin and Adderall can lead to test score improvements in students without the disorder, the promise of academic self-improvement does not justify the threat of serious health consequences.

Despite evidence of the drugs’ potential to improve focus and concentration, senior Aaron Liebman, who has ADHD, warns that taking the drugs illegally isn’t a shortcut to academic achievement.

“The most important thing that people considering taking the drugs should remember is that it’s not a magic pill,” he said. “It won’t motivate you. You have to motivate yourself.”