School Stress: Prescription Stimulant Abuse

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.

Nearly one-fifth of college students report that they take prescription stimulants that are not prescribed to them. Reports show that high-school students are abusing these medicines too. Let’s take a closer look.

We thank Alan Schwarz, former national correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book A.D.H.D. Nation, for his help answering some of these questions.

What are prescription stimulants?

Prescription stimulants are medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta and Vyvanse.

Why are students abusing stimulants?

For most, it’s about trying to cope with stress and academic pressure — and trying to get extra energy to study longer and cram for exams. Many teens falsely assume that abusing prescription stimulants is not as dangerous as using street drugs, because prescription drugs are prescribed by a doctor. Others may abuse stimulants as party drugs — for the energy or “high.”

Are they dangerous?

When not prescribed, yes. In reality, these drugs are controlled substances — which means there is a high risk for addiction or abuse, as well as negative side effects like delirium, psychosis or heart failure.

In addition, relying on unprescribed prescription medicines to help “manage” life can establish a lifelong pattern of dependency and prevent teens from learning important coping skills.

Is abusing stimulants helpful?

Studies have found that stimulants do not increase learning or thinking ability when taken by people who have not been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). According to Alan Schwarz, “There’s no question that it increases your ability to stay awake, but it does not make you smarter or increase your memory. It merely makes you more willing to continue doing something that you would otherwise consider quite tedious and enervating.”

Is it easy for students to get?

It appears to be:

“Because the drugs are readily available and being passed,” says Schwarz, “they’re coming out of backpacks and into other students’ hands.”

How is this medicine so readily available?

“It’s extraordinarily easy to get a diagnosis of ADHD,” Schwarz explains. “The problem is that the criteria is rather murky, very subjective, and in this context, very easy for a child to simply go into a doctor’s office and feign the symptoms of ADHD. Distractibility, fidgety-ness, lack of attention, and boom! Half an hour later, they walk out with a prescription for stimulants.”

“And, so you have kids who might have the pills in their backpacks, who bring them to school and you know their friend in a biology lab says, ‘Hey man, I really gotta study late tonight. Can I have one of those?’ The next thing you know, Billy with ADHD is giving a controlled substance, amphetamine, to his 15 year old friend and neither of them have any idea how it works or what side effects there may be.”

Are there suggestions for parents?

“If your child at age 16 says ‘Mom, I think I have ADHD,’ it’s absolutely possible that they might,” Schwarz says. “And you should take that seriously. But it’s also very possible that they are hoping to get free supplies of medicines that they use non-therapeutically and also might sell.”

Watch now

Alan Schwarz Discusses Some Of The Misperceptions Of Stimulant Abuse

Alan Schwarz discuss misconceptions teens have about stimulant abuse. This footage is from BREAKING POINTS, our 30-minute documentary that explores the pressures our teens face every day.

Key takeaways

To help your teen understand the true dangers of abusing prescription stimulants: