Students Still Seek Better Grades Through Drugs
High-pressure high schools are hotbeds of the risky abuse of "academic steroids" like Adderall.
The number of high school students abusing prescription stimulants to gain an academic edge seems to be rising, especially at schools where students are under more pressure to achieve and attend top colleges. While medicines like Adderall and Ritalin can help students with ADHD to stay focused, those without the disorder are increasingly using the pills—often buying them from classmates who have prescriptions—to help them push through all-nighters and ace exams. While abusing these pills can lead to depression, mood swings, heart irregularities, acute exhaustion, and psychosis during withdrawal, little is known about the longer-term effects. “Children have prefrontal cortexes that are not fully developed, and we’re changing the chemistry of the brain,” says Paul L. Hokemeyer, family therapist at Caron Treatment Centers in Manhattan. “It’s one thing if you have a real deficiency—the medicine is really important to those people—but not if your deficiency is not getting into Brown.”
The number of ADHD meds prescribed to young people has jumped 26% since 2007—although an annual survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that abuse of prescription amphetamines by 10th and 12th graders nationally has actually droppedd since the '90s. But experts note that the survey doesn't focus on students at high-pressure schools—where they believe the abuse is rising. And many teenagers don't even realize how dangerous and addictive these drugs are. “These are academic steroids. But usually, parents don’t get the steroids for you," says a high school senior in Connecticut, who convinced a doctor in to prescribe him Aderall so he could raise his grades. He then got hooked, taking up to 400 mg a day and ending up in a rehab where one fifth of the patients were being treated for stimulant dependencies that began like his own. “No one seems to think that it’s a real thing—adults on the outside looking in,” says the boy. “The other kids in rehab thought we weren’t addicts because Adderall wasn’t a real drug. It’s so underestimated.”