This time last year, Michele Martin, a social media and public relations consultant, felt trapped in her head. She struggled with her career and social life. Everything seemed stagnant.
Martin’s primary-care physician referred her to a psychiatrist, and together, they came to a diagnosis: attention-deficit disorder (ADD). Her doctor started her on five milligrams of extended-release Adderall, followed by a string of other ADD/attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications. Just last month — 11 months after first getting on the medication — Martin said she realized that she was no longer herself.
“The stimulants created an environment of unhappiness,” said Martin, who specializes in PR for the food industry. “I felt tired, suffered panic attacks and had mood swings that were unshakeable.”
“I refused to see the connection between the medications and my listlessness,” the New York native said. “I wanted a magic answer to my frustrations with what felt like broken equipment.”
Although college students’ abuse of Adderall as a study drug is often highlighted in the media, the more severe consequences of misusing the medication aren’t as publicized.
Last month, The New York Times profiled the November 2011 suicide of 24-year-old Richard Fee in an article that shed light on the consequences of amphetamine addiction. Fee, an aspiring medical student, developed a dangerous dependence on Adderall and Vyvanse that led the former president of his college class to become withdrawn, delusional and paranoid.
Fee’s doctors continued to prescribe medication even when his parents begged them to stop facilitating their son’s addiction. Fee ultimately hanged himself in his bedroom closet.
Adderall is used for the treatment of ADHD, a condition with symptoms that include restlessness, inability to concentrate and emotional instability.
In 2011, almost 14 million monthly prescriptions were written to treat ADHD — compared to just 5.6 million four years before — for Americans ages 20 to 39, according data reported in The New York Times, making that age group the fastest-growing segment of people taking medication for the condition.
“I think that the use of drugs like Adderall is too quick a knee-jerk reaction because of health care limitations,” said Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist and author. “It used to be that therapy was recommended. From my experience with patients and what I’ve heard from doctors, ADHD drugs are now just overprescribed.”
Without parental supervision, college students struggling to deal with the academic and emotional pressures of their new lifestyles can easily fake symptoms to obtain medications with serious psychological dangers.
A 2006 study in scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that 10% of young adults who misused ADHD stimulants became addicted to them.
“If kids are motivated to get stimulant medications, it would be exceedingly easy for them to fake the symptoms,” said J. Wesley Boyd, a psychiatrist at Cambridge Health Alliance and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
“From the high school level on, they know exactly what to say to doctors to wrangle prescriptions,” he said.
A study by professor David Berry at the University of Kentucky compared students who were diagnosed with ADHD with students who were asked to fake the symptoms.
The group of “fakers” were given five minutes with Google before taking two types of standard questionnaires. Neither questionnaire could distinguish between those with ADHD and those who were faking the symptoms.
Doctors who don’t spend enough time with patients to accurately diagnose and differentiate symptoms are only contributing to the problem, Boyd said.
“I think some doctors are far more ready to pull out the prescription pad than others, especially those who are motivated to make more money. More patients, more prescriptions and less time means more money,” he said. “I think in general, there should be some breaks in the system. More time should be put into background checking and psychological testing.”
Giving or accepting as little as one Adderall pill from someone else’s prescription is a federal crime. Adderall and similar amphetamines are classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as Schedule II drugs — the same classification as cocaine.
Despite the dangers of misdiagnosis and misuse, ADHD drugs do work wonders for some.
“I know that this is a drug that hasn’t been studied that much. I’m aware of the risk that I’m assuming, but that doesn’t really bother me because right now, it’s helping,” said John Everette, 24, who works as an account coordinator at a Chicago-based public relations company.
Everette started taking 10 milligrams of extended-release Adderall daily while studying at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he majored in communications.
“I understand the negative efforts of overuse, but I use it properly. I’ve never had anything but positive experiences,” said Everette.
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