School Stress: Are Study Drugs Helpful or Harmful?

This is the ninth post in our weekly fall School Stress series, a back-to-school toolkit for parents on how to best navigate their teen’s stress and anxiety — explored in our documentary BREAKING POINTS.

Teens’ lives today are jam-packed and many are stressed out and anxious. Instead of coping in healthy ways, some are abusing prescription stimulants not prescribed to them — also known as “study drugs.” These are medicines that are used to treat Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) such as Adderall, Concerta and Ritalin — but are abused to pull all-nighters and cram for exams. Most don’t see this behavior as risky.
 Infographic: Teens think it's okay to abuse medicine.
But what happens when high-school and college kids (who don’t have ADHD) take prescription stimulants that are not prescribed to them? Is this safe or are there real dangers?

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

Here are some highlights from the video of 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.


  • 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.
  • 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.


If you are feeling overwhelmed or have a question about your child’s drug or alcohol use, call our toll-free Helpline where you can speak with a trained and caring, master’s-level support specialist at 1-855-DRUGFREE (1-855-378-4373).

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.

Breaking Points film

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