Abuse of ADHD Medications on the Rise Among Students

Excerpted from an article in the Saratogian news ( titled, "Abuse of prescription attention-deficit disorder medications on the rise; Skidmore College noticing trend among its students"

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- While a freshman at Skidmore College, Sara trudged through the process of writing papers. But by the beginning of senior year, she realized there was an easier way. The easier way for Sara -- and many others -- entails popping an Adderall or one of the other prescription medications used to treat attention-deficit hyperactive disorder..

.James, a senior philosophy major at Skidmore who asked that we use a pseudonym to conceal his identity, was diagnosed with ADHD when he was 7 or 8, and he's been on medication to treat the disorder since he was in eighth grade. He sees his doctor during semester breaks when he's home in Massachusetts, where he gets his Focalin prescriptions.

Observing the way his freshman roommate uses Adderall to get school work done taught him something about managing his ADHD.

"I was really troubled to discover that his habits taking Adderall were really similar to mine," James said. "And it made me feel not that he's taking it like a medication, but that I'm taking it like a drug."

James said the experience was a wake-up call for him to make some changes. He switched from Adderall to Focalin and started taking it on a daily, as opposed to weekly, basis.

"I can't take it like a drug if I expect anyone to believe that it's a medication and not a drug," he said.

A problem for college campuses

Jennifer McDonald, the director of health promotion at Skidmore College, said a survey taken during the 2010-11 school year showed that 24 percent of students had taken ADHD drugs without a prescription. According to that survey, 75 percent took them as a study aid and 25 percent as a party drug.

But nationally, the numbers look to be even higher. According to a "60 Minutes" report from the same year, 50 percent to 60 percent of college juniors and seniors and more than 80 percent of juniors and seniors in fraternities or sororities used Adderall or Ritalin without a prescription.

Emergency-room visits for misuse of hyperactivity drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin have more than doubled in five years, with young adult abuse growing even faster, according to a new federal report.

Diagnosing and treating ADHD

Dr. Emanuel Cirenza, a pediatrician at Community Care Physicians in Gansevoort, said hyperactivity medication can be a "double-edged sword." ...It also can be used like a narcotic, the pediatrician added.

...The diagnosis is subjective because there is no definitive test for attention-deficit disorder. One recent study found that 95 percent of students were able to obtain a false diagnosis of ADHD by faking symptoms on one of the most commonly used self-reporting scales.

Getting stimulants is easy for students

McDonald said Skidmore College is well-aware of the rise in stimulant use on campuses.

"National statistics indicate that rates of diagnosed ADD are increasing by about 5 to 6 percent per year," McDonald said. "Naturally, a larger percentage of our student body has a legal prescription for stimulant medications now than we were seeing five or 10 years ago."

College use

From a survey of 703 Skidmore College students from the 2010-11 academic year (about 30 percent of the student population, but demographically representative of the entire population)

  • 24.1 percent of students reported they had used ADHD/ADD drugs (Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, etc.) without a prescription or differently than directed by a doctor.
  • Among those who had used these drugs, the most common drug used was Adderall (94.7 percent), followed by Ritalin (44.4 percent).
  • Among those who had used these drugs, 88.1 percent (or about 21 percent of the overall student body) had used them in the past year; 43.4 percent (or about 10.5 percent of the overall student body) had used them in the past month; and 22.1 percent (5 percent of the overall student body) had used them within the past week.
  • 25.6 percent of those who had used the drugs reported using them as party drugs, and 74.4 percent reported using them as study aids.

Teens' view

According to a survey by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America:

  • 40 percent of teens think prescription drugs are "much safer" to use than illegal drugs.
  • 29 percent think prescription drugs are not addictive.

Hospital figures

  • Emergency room visits tied to use of an ADHD stimulant rose from 13,379 in 2005 to 31,244 just five years later, according to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. Emergency room visits by those ages 18 to 25 nearly quadrupled in that time to 8,148.
  • The portion of those visits caused by nonprescribed use of the stimulants rose to half.
  • Sixty-three percent of emergency room visits involving the stimulants included use of another substance, with anti-anxiety and sleep medications, painkillers and alcohol highest among those.