Paige L. Hill, Senior Writer
The New York Times recently portrayed a “growing epidemic” of high school students abusing stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall in order to raise their GPAs and SAT scores and attend elite colleges.
But is that really the case?
There's been an overall rise in prescriptions for amphetamines prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which are intended to calm patients who suffer from the disorder. However, the stimulants also can give an energy surge to individuals without ADHD, helping them to study all-night for an exam or tunnel-like focus for taking the SATs.
The number of prescriptions for patients ages 10 to 19 has risen 26% in the last five years—a number that translates to more than 2 million individuals, according to IMS Health.
It begins with the prescription pad
According to the article, abuse of the prescription drugs can also lead to heart irregularities, depression, acute exhaustion or even psychosis during withdrawals—and can even be a gateway drug.
Unlike cocaine or heroin though, many of the abusers have a legal right to Ritalin and other ADHD drugs thanks to physician prescriptions. Some young adults interviewed by the Times admitted to lying about symptoms of ADHD to gain prescriptions. Several teenagers "laughed at the ease with which they got some doctors to write prescriptions for ADHD," the Times notes.
Older ADHD drugs required low doses every few hours, and school nurses were often required to dispense pills. Newer versions like Adderall XR and Vyvanse can last an entire day, and the parents who dispense them do not always realize the pills “can go down a pants pocket as easily as the throat” and then enter the school.
Is this actually an epidemic? TIME says no
The Times article contends that an estimated 15% to 40% of students at high-achieving high schools are abusing prescription stimulants, but according to a response to the article in TIME, national statistics “don’t really support the idea that misuse of these drugs among high-school students is growing.” Moreover, looking at National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) data from the past 35 years, modern-day students are not even approaching the rate of drug abuse in their parents’ or grandparents’ generations.
The sampling of about 40 students, parents, and school officials willing to talk to the Times out of the 200 contacted “wouldn’t be acceptable as unbiased” for a scientific publication, according to TIME.
Data from NIDA’s study “Monitoring the Future” reveals abuse among high school students has plummeted since its peak in 1981 when 32% of all high school seniors reported having taken a prescription stimulant. According to NIDA, just 12% of high school seniors in 2011 reported ever having misused a prescription stimulant.
The TIME article concludes that stimulant abuse rates could be surging, but the data in the Times article does not prove it—in effect, its publication could actually serve to worsen “whatever trend does exist by leading students to think ‘everyone’s doing it’” (Schwartz, New York Times, 6/9; Szalavitz, TIME, 6/11).