One in six college students say they’ve tried study drugs in the past year–yet most parents know little about it. As students buy, sell, swallow, and snort Adderall, Ritalin, and other prescription drugs meant to be used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), researchers are noting a rise in emergency room visits and substance abuse problems. Here’s what parents should know:

Study Drugs Are Dangerous–And Commonly Used

Yes, this may mean your kid. Across the U.S., 16 percent of college students say they’ve used stimulants like Adderall, Ritalin, or Dexedrine–drugs normally prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)–without a prescription, according to a recent survey by Ohio State University.

And, it’s not just college kids who are partaking. Twelve percent or more of high school students are misusing ADHD drugs, too. Most are doing this without their parents’ knowledge. In fact, just 1 percent of parents said their high school-age children had used stimulants without a prescription.

That’s dangerous. Misusing prescription stimulants boosts risk for side effects including irregular heartbeats, increased blood pressure, restlessness, anxiety, nervousness, paranoia, headache, dizziness, insomnia. And the list goes on. Between 2006 and 2011, emergency-room visits for stimulant misuse rose 156 percent in young adults–and calls to poison control hotlines rose 76 percent, according to a 2016 Johns Hopkins study.

Warning signs your child may be misusing these drugs include going without sleep or food for long periods of time, an unusually high activity level, unusual and extreme talkativeness, a “high” mood, nervousness, irritability, or dilated pupils. Even if your high school or college student is among the majority who don’t use study drugs, don’t ignore the issue. Talk about it–and about building good study habits and healthy ways to relax when academic pressure is on. Included in those conversations should be that stimulants don’t actually even work to help kids do better on tests or cram on papers.

College Students With ADHD Sell Their Drugs 

A study of more than 10,000 college students from across the country found that more than half of students with an Adderall or other ADHD drug prescription were asked to sell the medication to peers and friends. The number who say yes, at least once, may be as high as 61 percent, say University of Maryland researchers who interviewed 483 undergraduates about selling their prescription medications. Sales of ADHD drugs were more common among students than sales of pain pills.

In that Ohio State survey, 85 percent of students who used stimulants without a prescription got them from a friend or family member. And Johns Hopkins researchers found that 70 percent of illegal users got them from someone who had a prescription for the medication.

Experts say it’s important to talk with your child with ADHD about using their medication responsibly–and not sharing or selling it. Make sure they understand the laws that govern how it’s used. The US Drug Enforcement Agency classifies ADHD stimulants as Schedule II drugs, with serious penalties for illegal sales.

Untreated ADHD Is Part of the Problem

When researchers from Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital looked closely at 100 college students who misused stimulants, they found that they were just as intelligent as a group of 200 nonusers. But one in four had signs of ADHD. And just as many had executive function difficulties, meaning their brain struggled to plan, start, and carry through on tasks and commitments like getting homework done. They were using illegal stimulants to self-medicate so they could keep up at college. If your child is using stimulants without a prescription, consider having him or her evaluated for ADHD and other neuropsychological dysfunctions.

Non-Prescribed ADHD Drugs Can Be A Gateway Drug

Addiction and dependence are real risks with illegal stimulants. While about half of stimulant users in one national study said they’d used the drugs less than ten times in the past year, others used them 50 or more times. It’s not just popping a pill once or twice to pull an all-nighter. Students with substance abuse disorder may grind up and snort stimulants, mix them with alcohol, or take them along with other illegal or prescription drugs.

A University of Michigan study of more than 10,000 US college students found that those who used stimulants without a prescription were also ten times more likely to have used marijuana in the past year, almost seven times more likely to  binge  drink, 20 times  more likely to report cocaine use in the past year, and five times more likely  to  report  driving  after  binge  drinking compared to college students who didn’t misuse stimulants.

Don’t ignore it or dismiss it as your kids just trying to get through exam week. It’s not like having a couple espresso before finals. “Generally those who are using very frequently (more than 10 times per year) and those who are using intranasal (snorting), are the most concerning for two reasons: There is direct potential for harm with intranasal use of stimulants and it flags more severe underlying issues.”

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Last Updated: Jan 10, 2020