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    School Stress: Are Study Drugs Helpful or Harmful?

    This article is part of a series on navigating teens stress and anxiety, a common reason for substance use. Find the full series at Stress & Drug Use: What Every Parent Should Know.

    Teens’ lives today are jam-packed and many are stressed out and anxious. Instead of coping in healthy ways, some are abusing “study drugs.” These are prescription stimulants used to treat Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) such as Adderall, Concerta and Ritalin — but abused to pull all-nighters and cram for exams. Most don’t see this behavior as risky.

    But what does happen when high-school and college kids (who don’t have ADHD) take prescription stimulants that aren’t prescribed to them? Is this safe or are there real dangers?


    Watch now

    The Science Behind Stimulant Abuse

    Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, explains the science behind stimulant abuse.

    Highlights from Dr. Volkow

    • “The data is showing us is that overall stimulant medications do not improve your cognitive performance. If you have someone that is performing optimally, and you give them a stimulant, the performance may deteriorate.”
    • “If you’re giving stimulant medications to a kid that doesn’t have ADHD, at the time in their life when their brain is developing very rapidly that may interfere with those developmental processes.”
    • “When someone is abusing stimulants, the effects can be not very dissimilar to those that you observe with cocaine or methamphetamine — all of these are stimulant drugs.”
    • “When you are dealing with adolescents, which is the period of higher risk, that’s why you have to be particularly careful, because even though they may not have the genetic vulnerability, they’re at a stage in their life where exposure to drugs can create changes in the brain that may result in addictive behaviors.
    • “[Stimulant abuse] can produce full-blown psychosis. So you can end up in an emergency room because you are basically completely paranoid. It can be very severe, and devastating to the person. It does have deleterious effects.

    Key takeaways

    • Talk with your teens about how relying on study drugs to help “manage” life can establish a lifelong pattern of dependency and prevent them from learning important coping skills.
    • Explain to your teens that they are at a stage where exposure to drugs can create changes in the brain< that can lead to addiction.
    • Be sure your teens understand that there are real dangers to stimulant abuse including paranoia, psychosis and heart failure.
    • Almost half of teens who misuse or abuse Rx medicines obtained them from a friend. Be sure your teen knows that it’s never safe to take another person’s prescription medication.
    Breaking Points film

    Bring BREAKING POINTS to Your Community

    Host a screening of BREAKING POINTS, a documentary film that takes on the issue of study drugs and how they intersect with school stress. The package includes a Screening Guide with discussion questions and other bonus materials.

    Learn more