More and more college students are misusing ADHD medications for a perceived academic boost — taking more than is prescribed, sharing it with others who don’t have a prescription, or selling the medication illegally. A recent study from the University of South Carolina found that 17 percent of college kids, or 1 in 6, misuses ADHD drugs.
The most common reason college students misuse stimulant medication is the belief that it will help them achieve better academic performance. However, there are no studies showing a positive link between academic scores and taking stimulant medication illegally. In fact, studies do show a possible connection between misusing ADHD medications and poor academic performance.
Gina Pera, author of a popular book on adult ADHD and a new clinical guide for treating ADHD-challenged couples, told Healthline she thinks there’s another potential reason for stimulant misuse that is rarely considered: The student abusing the medication may actually have undiagnosed or untreated ADHD.
“I think some kids with ADHD see the symptoms in their friends and truly want to help by sharing the medication that helps them,” says Pera. “They might feel badly that they are benefiting from ADHD treatment and their friend is not.”
The problem isn’t just in the college population. “I know two parents who abuse their children's ADHD medications,” shares a New York mom of a young son with ADHD, who asked to remain anonymous. “One takes her child's Ritalin to curb her food cravings, and the other sells her son’s medicine to friends. It’s sickening and makes ADHD medicine look like a drug for people with little or no real symptoms.”
Drug Abuse Gives ADHD a Bad Rap
This misuse fuels the current stigma around ADHD medication, encouraging the belief that it’s akin to taking speed or that stimulants provide an unfair academic advantage to students with ADHD. These myths can hurt the ADHD community.
“College-age people with ADHD have told me they resent the requests [to share their ADHD medication],” says Pera, “because [it] suggests these other people don’t take ADHD seriously.”
“I think it’s easy for people to assume that ADHD medication gives my kid an unfair advantage,” says Ariel McGovern, a Florida mom of two teens, “but what it gives him is a fighting chance. He's still going to have to work harder than most kids just to get the same results.”
Her son agrees. “ADHD is something many people don’t take seriously, thanks in no small part to people [misusing ADHD medication],” says McGovern’s 17-year-old son, Sean. “Because of these people, it’s become incredibly hard to get prescriptions or accommodations, which I sorely need.”
What Can Patients, Parents, and Doctors Do?
Robert M. Tudisco, a practicing attorney and adult with ADHD, advises parents talk to teens and young adults with ADHD about impulsivity and the potential medical and legal consequences of diverting their medication onto the black market. He discussed the issue of medication diversion in an article in the June 2010 issue of Attention.
“My ADHD son heads off to college next year,” McGovern said. “I spoke to him about the fact that selling prescription medication would seem like a way to make money, but when we broke it down, he saw that the consequences could be far-reaching and extreme.”
Stimulants used to treat ADHD are classified as Schedule II controlled substances, which means it’s illegal to have them without a prescription. “You might have scored $20,” McGovern told her son, “but you could be charged with a felony. Now you’re a felon, expelled from school, facing fines and considerable jail time. You’re checking that dreaded box on every job application that asks if you’ve been convicted of a crime. Future employers aren't going to know that you were a kid with self-control issues — you'll be seen as a drug dealer.”
Educating your child about their medication and the potential consequences of diversion is key. In addition, it’s important to spread the facts about ADHD, ADHD medications, and the finding that students who misuse ADHD drugs actually don’t benefit academically, and often do worse.
It’s more difficult to watch over kids and the choices they make when they are away at college. Better managed care of ADHD patients would help this problem as well.
“Given that students with more severe symptoms of ADHD tend to misuse stimulants,” said Pera, “it is thought that there should be a focus on helping these students with adjunct ADHD treatment, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy around planning and organizing schoolwork, writing papers, and the like.”
The bottom line is that stimulant misuse is dangerous and illegal. Imparting that understanding to kids, as well as providing better ADHD management, could help reverse this risky trend.
A self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD, Penny Williams is an award-winning blogger and author of the Amazon best-seller, "Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD." Her second book, "What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD," is now available.