It is no surprise that the adolescent brain is focused on immediate consequences, rather than long term ones. When we think of this phenomenon however, we tend to conjure up thoughts of risky behaviors like consuming alcohol, illegal drugs or making unsafe sexual decisions. Obtaining the highest GPA at all costs usually isn’t in our “Top 10 things to worry about” when it comes to your teen. As the recent NY Times article points out, some students are going to unhealthy measures to compete in their high-pressure academic environments. When I ask students in my Substance Abuse Prevention workshops what substances they hear people their age are abusing, more and more often someone will say “the study drugs,” referring to Adderall or Ritalin.
No, abusing Adderall or Ritalin does not make you smarter; nor does it give you the answers. However, this is the way many students perceive it. Often, the students abusing these medications are naturally bright, but feel like they need the extra “edge” in order to keep up with the ever-increasing college expectations. This is achieved by taking drugs that enables them to stay awake all night to study, through the next day during the test, and focus more intensely for a longer period of time. “Academic steroids” is an accurate description for the ways I hear about these drugs being abused.
Most students today know someone who is prescribed Adderall or some other stimulant for their ADHD symptoms. This not only makes these drugs incredibly accessible, but also gives the false impression that these chemicals are harmless, even for people without ADHD. In their response article, the Child Mind Institute accurately differentiates between taking any prescription stimulant the way they are prescribed and abusing them. For those who struggle with ADHD symptoms, these medications provide relief from the challenges, both academic AND personal, that accompany the disorder. In my workshops I use the analogy of a river. These medications help keep a constant flow of necessary chemicals through the brain to minimize the symptoms. But someone who does not have the disorder already has an adequate flow of these chemicals. If they add the medications then the chemicals act like a tidal wave trying to flow through that same channel.
In the same way that the adolescent brain is vulnerable to building a tolerance (and developing an addiction to) alcohol and other drugs, it is also vulnerable to the effects of misusing stimulants. Like the boy quoted in the article, a student abusing these pills to stay awake and alert for unnatural and unhealthy amounts of time will not only experience the negative health effects of this behavior, but also develop a tolerance to the drug. It will then take increasing amounts to achieve the same desired result of staying awake and focused. This can result in immediate and drastic health risks (similar to those accompanying cocaine use) as well as a high risk of addiction.
As other writers have mentioned, it is difficult to measure the prevalence of the problem of misused stimulants among high school students. But we all know it is an issue for students, particularly in intense academic settings. And while it is not the majority of students who practice these unhealthy habits, most are aware of it and certainly hear their peers talking about it.
As frightening and unnerving as this issue is there are things that can be done to guide students toward practices and behaviors that actually benefit them as a whole - not just their GPA. For the adults in the student’s life, one of the most important tasks is to emphasize the holistic well-being of the student; assuring the student that their health is more valuable than any standardized test.