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Echoes from the past: Students using stimulants to boost grades, NYT reports

According to a recent New York Times article, adderall abuse is on the rise among high school students.

The New York Times ran a troubling article over the weekend on how a significant number of high school students around the country are using the amphetamine Adderall and other prescription stimulants to help them improve their grades, class rank and SAT scores as they compete to get into top colleges.

The students get the drugs from friends, student dealers, and even by faking symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to doctors. ADHD is one of the conditions for which amphetamines like Adderall and another class of drugs called methylphenidates (Ritalin and Focalin) are prescribed. Last winter, MinnPost reported on Minnesota high-school students similarly taking these drugs to boost academic performance.

As New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz notes, the Drug Enforcement Administration lists such stimulants as Class 2 substances, along with cocaine and morphine, “because they rank among the most addictive substances that have a medical use.”

Abuse of these drugs, Schwarz adds, “can lead to depression and mood swings (from sleep deprivation), heart irregularities and acute exhaustion or psychosis during withdrawal, doctors say. Little is known about the long-term effects of abuse of stimulants among the young. Drug counselors say that for some teenagers, the pills eventually become an entry to the abuse of painkillers and sleep aids.”

Here are few more excerpts from the article:

Doctors and teenagers from more than 15 schools across the nation with high academic standards estimated that the portion of students who [abuse stimulants] ranges from 15 percent to 40 percent. … “They’re the A students, sometimes the B students, who are trying to get good grades,” said one senior at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, a Philadelphia suburb, who said he makes hundreds of dollars a week selling prescription drugs, usually priced at $5 to $20 per pill, to classmates as young as freshmen. “They’re the quote-unquote good kids, basically.” …

“People would have never looked at me and thought I used drugs like that — I wasn’t that kid,” said Madeleine, who has just completed her freshman year at an Ivy League college and continues to use stimulants occasionally. “It wasn’t that hard of a decision. Do I want only four hours of sleep and be a mess, and then underperform on the test and then in field hockey? Or make the teachers happy and the coach happy and get good grades, get into a good college and make my parents happy?” …

Liz Jorgensen, a licensed addiction specialist who runs Insight Counseling in Ridgefield, Conn., said her small center had treated “at least 50 or 60” high school students from southern Connecticut this school year alone who had abused prescription stimulants for academics. Ms. Jorgensen said some of those teenagers landed in rehab directly from the stimulants or, more often, grew comfortable with prescription drugs in general and began abusing prescription painkillers like OxyContin. …

Douglas Young, a spokesman for the Lower Merion School District outside Philadelphia … expressed frustration that many parents seemed oblivious to the problem. “It’s time for a serious wake-up call,” Mr. Young said. “Straight A’s and high SAT scores look great on paper, but they aren’t reflective measures of a student’s health and well-being. We need to better understand the pressures and temptations, and ultimately we need to embrace new definitions of student success. For many families and communities, that’s simply not happening.”

Faking symptoms

The article also includes this disturbing example of how easy it is for teenagers to fool a doctor into prescribing them stimulants:

During an interview in March, the dealer at Lower Merion High reached into his pocket and pulled out the container for his daily stash of the prescription stimulants Concerta and Focalin: a hollowed-out bullet. Unlike his other products — marijuana and heroin, which come from higher-level dealers — his amphetamines came from a more trusted, and trusting, source, he said.

“I lie to my psychiatrist — I expressed feelings I didn’t really have, knowing the consequences of it,” he said, standing in a park a few miles from the high school. “I tell the doctor, ‘I find myself very distracted, and I feel this really deep pain inside, like I’m anxious all the time,’ or something like that.”

He coughed out a chuckle and added proudly, “Generally, if you keep playing the angsty-teen role, you’ll get something good.”

Déjà vu?

Interestingly (and ironically), as Vaughan Bell, a psychologist at King’s College London, points out in his excellent blog MindHacks, the Times already ran a big story on the use of stimulants by students to improve their studying skills.

That story ran 80 years ago. Writes Bell:

In the mid-1930s, [the stimulant benzedrine] was also being tested as a way of increasing intelligence test scores with promising results, both in British adults and in American children.

But, unsurprisingly (it is speed after all) it became popular for party people wanting a recreational high, and students wanting increased focus and energy, who concluded through their own informal tests that it could help with study.

In 1937, none other than the The New York Times ran a story about benzedrine calling it a ‘high octane brain fuel’ and noting that without it the brain ‘does not run on all cylinders’. It was clearly pitched as a cognitive enhancer.

Shortly after Time magazine ran a story specifically on how it was being used by college students to cram for final exams.

Suddenly, there was a boom in students using benzedrine, leading the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association to condemn the press coverage for promoting the widespread use of drug, as previously its use was a niche activity.

The warnings did little good, however, and speed has remained a massively popular study drug ever since.

You can read Schwarz’s article on the Times’ website. And you’ll find Bell’s MindHacks blog here.

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Comments (1)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 06/11/2012 - 12:21 pm.

    The Times’ story perpetuates a myth that marketers of SSRIs have been pulling for decades now: That ADHD drugs somehow correct a *chemical imbalance* in the brain – NOT TRUE!

    And the “side effects” of ADHD drugs don’t just hit people with ADHD – they hit all users of the drugs.

    Robert Whitaker, author of the great book Mad in America, points out the great hypocrisy of this characterization on his website today:

    http://www.madinamerica.com/2012/06/the-ny-times-when-stimulants-are-bad/

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