Students think Study Drugs Give Them a Harmless Boost: Guest Blogger Mike Shea On the Real Risks of Misuse–and Prevention Strategies

study drug abuse

Introduction by Barbara L. Wood, Ph.D.

Psychostimulant medications are the most common drugs used to treat symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  ADHD is a syndrome that  can include inattention, distractibility,  impulsiveness, and hyperactivity that interfere with performance at school and at work and may disrupt family life as well.  Brain imaging studies indicate that the brain matures normally in children with ADHD  but that development is delayed, on average, by about 3 years. The lag is particularly pronounced in the parts of the brain responsible for  thinking, paying attention, and planning. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health,  recent studies have found that the cerebral cortex shows delayed maturation overall and that  communications between the two halves of the brain also develops more slowly.  Among the medications that have been repeatedly demonstrated to reduce ADHD symptoms and enhance functioning inside and outside the home are Methylphenidate  (Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate, Daytrana), Dexmethylphenidate (Focalin), Amphetamine-Dextroamphetamine (Adderall), Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, Dextrostat) and Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse). These medications appear to help by increasing levels of neurotransmitters in the brain that facilitate communication between neurons.   While these drugs are typically  beneficial when taken as prescribed, the DEA has designated them as Schedule II substances. This means that while they have medical usefulness,  they also have a high potential for abuse. According to a recent report by American Academy of Pediatrics,   misuse and diversion of stimulant medications are much more likely to occur than abuse or addiction among people who are being treated for adhd.  In fact, according to the AAP,   stimulant medications that are prescribed for children with a diagnosis of ADHD  “may reduce the risk for trying drugs and developing an SUD”.  

Misuse and diversion of psychostimulants does appear to be a growing problem.  One study of 1,811 undergraduates at a large, public, southeastern research university in the United States found that 34% of the students reported the illegal use of ADHD stimulants. Most of the students who were using these drugs illegally said they turned to them primarily in periods of high academic stress and found them to reduce fatigue while increasing reading comprehension, interest, cognition, and memory. Importantly, most had little information about the drug and found procurement to be both easy and stigma free.  The USCience Review  pusblished by the University of Southern California cites findings from the  National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) that of the  15% of college students who acknowledge some form of psychotherapeutic drugs for non-medical use, 7% say they  use Adderall to either increase attention span, party, or improve grades and the NSDUH also observed that “students  commonly believe that the risks of prescription drug use are low to nonexistent”. Of course, this is not true, and today, Guest blogger Mike Shea, CEO and Owner of the addiction recovery center Chapters Capistrano Chapters Capistrano discusses risks associated with the abuse of psychostimulants as well as the  steps parents can take to reduce the likelihood that their children will engage in study drug abuse.


Mike SheaMike Shea is CEO and Owner of the  addiction recovery center Chapters Capistrano, located in Southern California. Working with a comprehensive staff and diverse amenities, Shea is focused on increasing addiction recovery awareness and improving outcomes through flexible treatments and lengths of stay.”

ADHD is a real problem that impacts many young students and adults; however, the prescription solutions—such as Adderall and Ritalin—delivered by doctors to treat this condition do carry concerns just as any other prescribed medications. For many parents and students, ADHD medications are a real solution to helping them focus and obtain clarity in school, work and life responsibilities. Many patients have found that early use and careful medical observation under directed use when utilizing ADHD medications can be extremely beneficial. Staying attuned to these needs can help with relieving symptoms of ADHD that severely undermine the ability to meet home, school and work responsibilities.

However, it is also important for everyone to understand that when used illicitly, these medications do carry risk—such as addiction.  Considering that ADHD medications, or “study drugs,” are prescribed to and exchanged between a large amount of underage students—this is a problem that can impact families and one that parents should look out for. When looking to ADHD medications as a solution, it is important that the patient, parents and doctors all have an understanding of how to properly use the medication to avoid abuse problems.

Study Drug Abuse by the Numbers

According to 2012 CDC research, “The diagnosis [of ADHD] had been made in 15 percent of high school-age children, and that the number of children on medication for the disorder had soared to 3.5 million from 600,000 in 1990.” Similar growth is also being attached to college-age students, and currently there is rising concern surrounding the use of Adderall among toddlers.

Young adults who abuse study drugs—even if temporarily—report that they mostly use the substance to heighten academic performance. Recent reports have revealed that Ivy League students who admit to using these drugs to boost test performance in school have even argued that they do not consider the abuse as “cheating.” While that debate remains open, the open use of this addictive drug is one that all parents should take note of—whether or not their child is diagnosed with ADHD.

Ways Parents Can Discourage Study Drug Abuse

Apart from having an open, honest conversation about the dangers of ADHD medication abuse with children, there are many ways that parents can work to discourage inappropriate use of the drugs. For instance, parents can consider:

  • Academic Pressures 

It’s clear that in the midst of high tuitions, high school students have a strong motivation to perform well academically not only to get into a choice university, but also to be awarded scholarships. Since parents have a lot to benefit from their child’s early success, many may not recognize when their encouragement to “study hard” transforms into debilitating pressure on their children.

While it is always important to help children stay focused on schoolwork, it is also important to examine how much pressure one may be placing on academic excellence. These pressures can result in many destructive behaviors among teens, including the illicit use of study drugs to achieve higher grades in school.

  • If ADHD Medications Are Necessary 

One of the easiest ways to encourage study drug abuse among children is by allowing them to have access to the medications in the first place. While Adderall, Ritalin and other psychostimulant prescriptions have their place in treating this condition, parents should take caution to make sure it is the best option for a child. School psychologists or family doctors may suggest use of these medications; however, there is careful recommendation that all those considering ADHD treatment consult with a clinical neuropsychologist.

In addition to medication use, all students diagnosed with ADHD should learn behavioral skills that help improve their ability to focus and complete tasks. In some cases, this effort will reduce and perhaps eventually eliminate the need for psychostimulants. Accommodations in the classroom are also of major assistance to most students with ADHD. Typically, a child must be tested to receive these accommodations.

Thinking about these alternative and supplemental approaches early on—such as in the case of toddler-prescribed medications mentioned above—can help prevent dependency early on. While alternatives do not work for every patient, it is important to always stay tuned into how a child is responding to medication use.

Simply put, parents should not see the prescription as the end-all-be-all solution. Instead, parents and doctors should carefully monitor how a certain medication may be impacting a child’s ADHD—positively or negatively. Some may discover that some medications work better than others and that the efficacy of a certain prescription solution can change over time.

  • How Children Use ADHD Medications 

While many parents may decide that use of ADHD medications is necessary to properly treat the condition, there is also great room to carefully monitor a child’s use of these drugs. Making sure that a child is taking the prescribed amount and keeping an eye out for negative side effects can help prevent young students from developing chemical dependency without even realizing it.

Fortunately, research conducted at UCLA has revealed that there is minimal risk of dependency when children use stimulant medication properly. The lead author of the study—which analyzed 15 long-term studies following thousands of children aged on average eight to 20—states, “We found the children were neither more likely nor less likely to develop alcohol and substance-use disorders as a result of being treated with stimulant medication…We found no association between the use of medication such as Ritalin and future abuse of alcohol, nicotine, marijuana and cocaine.”

With this in mind, parents should be more cautious of making sure that children do not share or sell these prescribed medications to others who may use them illicitly.

How Parents Can Detect ADHD Drug Abuse

Unlike alcohol or marijuana abuse, ADHD medication use can be much more discreet, as it is easily consumed in pill form. For users who do not actually have ADHD, the side effects of Adderall abuse can become heavily recognizable.  For this reason, parents concerned about the potential their child is abusing study drugs should be aware of signs that this form of substance abuse is taking place. These signs include:

  • Lack of Sleep
  • Restlessness, Nervousness
  • Weight Loss or Appetite Loss
  • Shakiness or Jitteriness
  • Dry Mouth
  • Abnormal Irritability

If the abuse of the drug is fairly regular or the individual overdoses on the stimulant, they may display signs of:

  • Chest Pain
  • Irregular Heartbeat
  • Seizures
  • Weakness and Dizziness

If any of these signs are recognized, it is important to seek immediate medical attention and discuss any use of ADHD medications.

Should ADHD Medication Dependency Require Recovery and Detox?

Like other addictive substances, ADHD medications can pose a need for detox, especially if the user has become chemically dependent on the drug over a long period of time. While some users may experience negative signs from recreational or one-time use, it is still important to gain an opinion from psychological and medical professionals to determine if physical or psychological addiction has formed.

Addiction recovery can work effectively for young adults who have grown used to abusing ADHD medications and become chemically dependent. With medically-assisted detox, students can work through withdrawal with greater comfort and security. However, detox is typically not enough to ensure recovery, as many young adults will find that flexible treatment options—such as counseling—are necessary to establish a healthy balance.

Chapters Capistrano is a comprehensive addiction recovery treatment center located along the beautiful, refreshing coast of Southern California. Specializing in all types of substance abuse, Chapters offers medically-assisted detox and flexible treatment programs that are designed to provide greater confidence in addiction recovery. Those searching to begin a new “Chapter” in addiction recovery are encouraged to contact Chapters Capistrano today at 888-690-4900.



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