Pill-aging knowledge: High schoolers using stimulants as study aids

Although it's hard to say just how deep it goes, a trend has emerged: teenagers using drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse and Focalin – frequently prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – to aid their classroom studies.
Although it's hard to say just how deep it goes, a trend has emerged: teenagers using drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse and Focalin – frequently prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – to aid their classroom studies.

He knows he probably shouldn’t have, but driven by curiosity and a basic desire to succeed, Dan downed the Adderall he got from a friend.

He didn’t have a prescription, but it was just like friends told him. A junior at a Woodstock high school at the time, Dan remembers soaking up information at a rate he’d never been able to without the pill.

“It’s like a fail safe – like a safety net, I guess, if you’re afraid you aren’t going to pass,” said the now out-of-state college student, who upon his request will not be identified by his full name in this story. “If you do a study session with Adderall, you’d be surprised how your grades improve.”

Although it’s hard to say just how deep it goes, a trend has emerged: teenagers using drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse and Focalin – frequently prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – to aid their classroom studies.

For some, the Schedule II drugs can produce a level of engagement and comprehension that allows students to make up for lost time during all-night study sessions, and increase focus and performance during tests.

“They’ll buy them from people who have been prescribed them legitimately,” said Rick Atwater, director of behavioral health services at Employee Health Consultants in Crystal Lake. “More and more, I’ve heard from kids that have been using them for performance reasons.”

Through Atwater, who specializes in substance abuse, the Northwest Herald was put in touch with two sources who spoke firsthand about their experiences with “study drugs” in high school, under the condition that their last names be withheld.

The Northwest Herald spoke in person, and in the presence of Atwater, with Max, a graduate of a Woodstock high school and a friend of Dan’s who was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age.

Max was on and off medications to deal with his attention issues during his time in high school, but he maintains that – although he was asked – he never provided the drugs to his classmates.

“I just heard kids trying to buy it from kids who were prescribed it,” he said. “They’d find anybody who would give it to them. Usually it was around crunch time – tests, stuff like that.”

Stimulants destigmatized

The way Max remembers it, nobody who wanted Adderall or Ritalin had a particularly hard time getting their hands on the drugs.

He guesses an Adderall pill went for $2 or $3 – enough to make a few bucks off medication generally bought by parents, but not a price that would make a dealer serious money.

Others passed off pills to friends for free in the sort of nonchalant manner that worries those who know the problems the drugs can cause.

“Somehow these stimulant medications have become destigmatized,” said Dr. Karla Steingraber, a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Northbrook. “These are significant medications with significant side effects.”

Steingraber said she’s heard of the use of study drugs both directly, in her dealings with patients, and indirectly.

“In my estimation, it’s a pretty serious problem,” she said.

Still, use of the medication is flying under the radar at area schools. Some of the county’s largest school districts haven’t discovered cases of study drug use at all.

“Anecdotal evidence would suggest that if it is happening, it’s happening in a very limited scale at our schools,” said Jeff Puma, District 155 director of communications.

“I have not seen a lot of Ritalin or Adderall in our schools,” said Connee Meschini, a student assistance counselor for District 200. “But I know that it does go on.”

Max estimates that about 15 percent of his graduating class used drugs to help their performance in school.

Dan remembers it being more prominent, placing the figure at nearly 25 percent.

Dan said he used Adderall about five times in high school, and only during crucial academic periods.

Others used more frequently, and experimented with snorting the drugs to get them in their systems faster, Max said.

“I knew kids who were abusing it, but then at the same time, those kids were using it to be successful with studying,” Max said.

‘Fast-food approach to life’

For teens short on concentration, study drugs can feel like the answer for which they’ve been looking.

“There are some people who will notice that they wouldn’t change whatsoever,” Steingraber said. “And then some people will report the same effect that someone with ADHD will report. That they had a much easier time hyper-focusing on something and a much easier time getting something done.”

The differences between the drugs – Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse and Focalin – are individual to whomever takes them.

Max was prescribed Vyvanse after high school, and he said it works for him better than any medication he previously tried.

It’s tough to predict how someone will react to a drug.

And therein, Steingraber said, lies one of the most troubling issues with the rise of study drugs – teenagers are taking the pills without really knowing how their bodies will react, or even what side effects to look out for.

“If you’re taking somebody else’s medications, and the psychiatrist hasn’t really had a chance to fully evaluate whether or not this medication is for you, it can really be a problem,” Steingraber said.

Manic episodes, extreme irritability, appetite suppression and trouble sleeping are among the most common side effects of study drugs. Steingraber said she has noticed that Vyvanse and Focalin, in particular, can induce tics and jitteriness, and cause people to pick at their skin and cuticles “to the point where people have to where Band-Aids around their fingers.”

There’s also the risk that taking drugs to help with school work can lead to taking them for other quick fixes or using them recreationally.

Atwater sees study drugs as part of a way of thinking that can get people in trouble, and one he said is becoming all too common.

“There’s an idea that somehow or another a drug is the answer. And that, I think, is pretty epidemic,” he said. “It’s sort of the fast-food approach to life.”

Feeling the pressure

Maybe it’s school stress. Maybe it’s parental pressure. Maybe it’s the collective anxiety brought on by academics, sports, extracurricular activities and the thought of college.

For Steingraber, the rising problem of study drugs lies less in the ease with which students are obtaining them and more in the reasons they feel they need them in the first place.

“I think, ultimately, the heart of the matter is that there is now a culture of competition and perfectionism,” she said. “It’s almost like everyone has to get into an Ivy League school, otherwise you’re nothing.

“That’s not the case everywhere, but you’re seeing this more and more, this black-and-white thinking that there’s only one path to success, when usually it’s not the right path for everybody.”

Forcing an idealistic image on young people, Steingraber said, doesn’t allow them to appreciate what they can accomplish with honest effort.

Dan has continued to use Adderall into college, still taking it with water and now, maybe, just a hint of guilt.

He’s realized, looking around, that the drug can be addicting. He’s seen others get hooked.

“That’s probably why ... I probably should have never took it,” he said. “One day, you’re working at this high rate and retaining all this information, and the next day you’re slow and groggy – you’re worse off than you probably should have been.”

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