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With the economy in a downturn and college costs skyrocketing, many students feel increasingly pressured to get top grades at any price. Combined with increasing rates of ADHD diagnosis in children and teens, the use of "study drugs" is ballooning.

Ten or fifteen years ago, pulling an all-nighter during exams week probably meant lining your desk with Mountain Dew and candy bars.  Maybe the more sophisticated among us filled a Thermos with hot coffee (mixed with plenty of cream and sugar).  Those walking on the wild side may have furtively snagged some No-Doz from the medicine cabinet and suffered through the jitters of a caffeine rush while trying to keep their eyes on their notes.  Like so much these days, that all seems rather quaint now.  Why consume caffeine when you can pop a prescription stimulant?

Prescription Stimulants are in High Supply

The modern notion of attention deficit disorder was first added to the diagnostic and statistic manual of mental disorders (DSM) in 1980.  The diagnostic criteria were refined multiple times before arriving at the current definition in 2000 DSM-IV-TR.  The main symptoms remained pretty much the same, however, and the diagnosis of ADHD has become familiar.  

According to a recent parent survey, around 11% of children between the ages of 4 and 17 were diagnosed with ADHD in 2011.

6.1% of children are taking prescribed medication for ADHD. That's a lot of pills.

With so many of their peers diagnosed and medicated, it's no wonder that many teens have begun to see prescription stimulant abuse as a real problem.  The National Monitoring of Adolescent Prescription Stimulants Study, the first national study to monitor non-medical use of prescription stimulants in pre-teens and teen, found that 15% of respondents had used a prescription stimulant and that 12% had either given their own prescribed pills to someone else or taken the prescribed pills of another person.

The Dawn of the Study Drug

But why are kids taking other people's medications?  Well, the answer to that lies in the medications themselves.  Prescription stimulants such as Ritalin, Adderal and Concerta are prescribed to children with ADHD to help them concentrate and stay focused.  Study after study has confirmed the efficacy of these drugs for those diagnosed.  Combine those results with a large population of kids and their friends begin to see stimulants as something ordinary and mundane.  

Everybody seems to be taking them and all they do is help them work better at school.

They're not "drugs" anymore; they're just a way to study harder.

Do prescription stimulants actually help kids without ADHD to stay focused?  Studies of students at the university level haven't found a link between stimulant abuse and higher grades, although some doctors have acknowledged that the drugs may have similar effects on all people when it comes to increasing the ability to focus for longer periods of time.  While many students report that they feel positive effects from non-prescribed stimulants, some researchers think that it's more of a placebo effect than anything else.  Taking a sugar pill that looks like Ritalin might have the same effect. 

So what's the big deal, right?  Plenty of kids are prescribed stimulants and plenty of kids are taking them and there doesn't seem to be many problems.  Well, maybe.  Or then again, maybe not.

The Dark Side Of Stimulant Abuse

Taking Someone Else's Medication is Risky

Children with legitimately diagnosed ADHD receive that diagnosis because there is something going on in their brains that keeps them from having a normal range of concentration and focus.  Doctors typically start medicating at very low doses, slowly increasing the amount until optimal results are reached.  Those receiving the medication are having an imbalance of some kind corrected and too much is as bad as too little.  It takes careful observation over time to determine what the best dosage for each individual.

Taking someone else's prescription means you're jumping into a dosage that has not been personalized to your brain and body chemistry. 

And, if you already have a "normal" attention span, it means that you're already starting out at too much medication since your prescribed dosage should be none.

Too much stimulant use can result in an irregular heartbeat and hyperthermia, or very high body temperatures.  The risk of heart failure or seizures is huge.  Even at minimal usage, stimulants can interfere with normal brain chemistry and cause feelings of paranoia and anger.  As if that isn't bad enough, you can even wind up with side effects when you stop taking stimulants.  Without the extra chemicals flooding your body, you can lose your ability to feel pleasureSuicidal thoughts, anxiety, fatigue, disrupted sleep: all of these can occur after you stop taking stimulants.

How Do I Know if my Child is Using Study Drugs?

Parents should look for tell-tale signs of stimulant abuse such as extreme mood swings, altered sleep patterns, and anxious behavior.  Kids who are using may have trouble remembering things when they don't take the drugs.  They may have some disrupted relationships as old friends who don't use stimulants are replaced by new friends who do.  The occasional late-night study session may evolve into cramming every day, late into the night.

What Can I Do to Keep Abuse from Starting?

Many children who abuse prescription stimulants report that they began doing so because they felt an extreme amount of pressure to perform at the highest level in school.  Unfortunately, a lot of that pressure came from their parents

Some anecdotal reports even suggested that a number of parents subtly encouraged their children to answer diagnostic surveys in ways that would result in an ADHD diagnosis and a prescription for stimulants.

Parents should look at their own words and actions.  What kind of home environment are you creating?  What subtle or not-so-subtle expectations are you setting for your children?  Do you expect your children to succeed at any cost?  Is only the best good enough?  Do your children perhaps see that you use your own method of self-medicating to make it through a long work day or a special project with a tight deadline?

In tough times, it's natural to want to be as competitive as possible.  The side effects, both short and long-term, of stimulant abuse are not worthy means to that end.

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