8 Ways to Respond to Student ADHD Drug Abuse

Training about misuse of prescriptions and revised policies regarding diagnosis, treatment and drug diversion can help to address this issue.

College students are using and abusing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) medications in record numbers. They are selling, swapping, sharing and stealing ADHD medications for a host of non-medical reasons, including “pulling all-nighters,” weight loss and partying. They often mix these medications with alcohol and other drugs with serious and sometimes lethal consequences.

The rate of ADHD diagnosis is now so high that it exceeds all reasonable estimates of the disorder. Dr. C. Keith Conners of Duke University, a pillar of the ADHD movement and author of one of the most popular ADHD rating scales, recently declared the current level of ADHD diagnosis to be “a disastrous epidemic of dangerous proportions.”

Given the notable increases in ADHD diagnosis and related drug abuse, a growing number of colleges and universities have implemented new rules to reduce ADHD drug abuse on campus.
It may be advisable for all institutions of higher education to learn about the nature and magnitude of the ADHD drug abuse epidemic. The same may be true of K-12 schools, or at least those highly competitive high schools where abuse is purported to be a growing problem.

The ADHD Drug Abuse Crisis Is Growing

Last year, The New York Times ran a font-page story about the tragic death of an aspiring medical student who died of Adderall addiction. Having used classmates’ ADHD medications to help cram for college exams, Richard Fee decided to obtain his own prescription of Adderall after graduating from college to study for medical school entrance exams. Obtaining a diagnosis and a prescription for Adderall was all too easy to accomplish with the aid of a cooperative (or perhaps naive) clinician from the surrounding college community.

Soon thereafter, Fee became addicted to his prescribed medications. The once popular and well-liked college athlete became paranoid and explosive. For safety concerns, his parents began locking their bedroom door at night and sought inpatient treatment for him. After he was released, a community doctor “caring” for Fee increased the dose of his prescription. Clinicians treating Fee rebuffed his parents’ efforts to intervene. In the midst of ongoing Adderall-induced paranoia – a known side effect of high dosing and withdrawal – Fee committed suicide. 

Long before the Richard Fee story captured national media attention, there was ample evidence that ADHD drug abuse was a growing problem on college campuses. As of 2002, about 5% of American college students abused ADHD medications. By 2006, the numbers had tripled. Today, 25% to 35% of college students admit to abusing ADHD medications.

Most students report using ADHD medications orally, but more than 15% admit to the more dangerous practice of crushing and snorting the medication – a method that gives a rush similar to snorting cocaine. Current research indicates that approximately two-thirds of U.S. college students have been offered ADHD medications and just as many reported knowing other students who use ADHD medications for non-medical reasons. Most college students claim that the drugs are easy to obtain.

Students Have Skewed Perceptions of ADHD Drug Risks

In-depth interviews of college students revealed significant misconceptions about ADHD medications. Because medications like Adderall are medically prescribed substances, most students view these substances as “good drugs” as opposed to “street drugs.” They also consider them safe to use in moderation, whether prescribed for them or not. Many report obtaining ADHD medications from friends to avoid “wasting” time by going to a doctor for a prescription.

Today, 25% to 35% of college students admit to abusing ADHD medications.

The New York Times recently invited students to submit personal stories about using ADHD medications for academic advantage. College students spoke frankly about stimulant use and abuse:

“The market was so inflated at my school that it was given out to whoever wanted it for free.” – Male, 20, Columbus, Ohio

“Whenever midterms or finals come around, people come out of the woodwork to beg for my pills.” – Male, 20, Cleveland, Ohio

“I don’t understand why this person sitting next to me can have a prescription, but I can’t.” – Male, 23, Stevens Point, Wis.

High school students also told of the growing problem of abuse on their campuses:

“Something inside of me that sparked the drive to be independently successful died, and I swallowed the pills.” – Female, 16, Minneapolis, Minn.

“It’s my morning cup of coffee, only nobody told me the insidious side effects.” – Female, 18, Sarasota, Fla.

“The crash was a minor side effect to me. I merely felt exhausted and a bit shaky. Well worth it, I would think.” – Female, 17, Chicago

“I knew how to say the right things to the psychologist to get the diagnosis.” – Male, 17, Cambridge, Mass.

Like most students, many professionals, parents and educators underestimate the risks associated with abuse of ADHD medications. Despite repeated warnings and multi-million dollar fines for overselling the benefits and minimizing the risks of using ADHD medications, the drug industry has continued to use marketing campaigns that pitch the medications as a benign and effective intervention for academic problems.

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