Few students abuse ADHD meds, but it doesn’t help grades, says expert
After she took the pill, she felt like she was flying. Sasha—whose real name has been changed to protect her identity—had struggled with anxiety and depression in the past, and it had been showing in her grades. Desperate, she turned to her doctor—and the ADHD medication he suggested.
Sasha was never tested for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but she still found herself taking the generic Ritalin prescribed by her doctor. After that, she remembers being able to get prescriptions and refills easily. “I would go see my family doctor … and he would just prescribe me my medication,” she said.
To her, it was a blessing. Sasha believes the drugs helped bring back her marks from failing grades to straight A’s. “I was able to do so much in so little time,” Sasha remembers, recalling a time when she could write page after page of essays in mere minutes. “It was as if each second were a minute of work,” Sasha said.
But Sasha may be part of an increasingly shrinking group. While it seems that Ritalin and Adderall are widely used among the Concordia student body, Gabriella Szabo, a health promotion specialist with Concordia University, says that’s simply not true.
“Sometimes, this [drug use] is written about as if it’s something that’s very commonplace,” Szabo said. She explained that in 2013, Concordia participated in a nation-wide study looking at student behaviour on campus. On the topic of misuse of ADHD medication, the study found that only five per cent of Concordians had misused such drugs in the past 12 months.
“Calling it an ‘epidemic’ is really cool and eye-catching and sexy,” Szabo said. “But it’s simply not what the research shows.”
In addition, Szabo warns students looking to improve performance will likely not find better grades in a pill bottle. “In students at the university level who are not diagnosed [with ADHD], it doesn’t have an impact … you [have to understand the material], and there’s no medication that does that.”
Sasha first began taking the pills in her second year of CEGEP to help bring up her grades. Although she had been seeing a psychiatrist, Sasha says she found the sessions unhelpful: no one addressed the root cause of why she wasn’t succeeding. “They never really continued to look into [my struggles with school],” Sasha said. So she continued to take the pills.
Szabo says that for some students, medication may not address the gaps in their education. “Maybe [some students] haven’t learnt how to study,” she said. “Take a look at your high school education. Do you feel you were prepared for university?”
In Sasha’s case, she still doesn’t know if she actually has ADHD. She was told there was a “huge waiting list” to be tested at a price she found herself unwilling to pay. Instead, she continued to take the pills, desperate to improve her academic performance.
But after several years of continuous use, Sasha began to realize the medication was losing its effect. “I went back to my doctor a couple of times and told him the [new drug] Concerta is not working,” she said. “And he’s telling me it’s the best on the market … so he says he’ll just up my medication.” Since then, Sasha said her dosage has been upped at least three times, without any effect. “It’s been a year [that] I’ve been struggling. I’m still not focused,” she said.
Now, even with the high dose, she worries her struggles with school are even worse than before. “I’ve gotten to be very forgetful … I don’t know if that’s the medication,” Sasha said. “I don’t know if it’s a brain thing. Has taking this drug continuously all the time … is it something that is going to affect me? I don’t know.”
This year, Sasha is beginning to see her grades slide again. “I went from starting school with a 3.47 GPA, down to a 2.0,” Sasha said, referring to the times when the medication was working and when it was not. “I don’t know if it’s killing me more than making me better.”
Szabo warns every medication has adverse effects, and ADHD medication is no exception. “Stimulants like Ritalin—used in people who do not have the conditions—can lead to psychosis, seizures, and cardiovascular events like heart problems,” she said. “Maybe that’s where a person will say ‘Okay I’m having a problem, because now I’m putting myself at risk of messing up my heart, or my brain.’”
On the topic of doctors prescribing ADHD to students, Szabo hopes professionals will continue to be prudent. “One would hope that this will not be prescribed to people without a diagnosis, of course. One would hope that doctors are acting responsibly,” Szabo said. “Especially with this level and type of medication.”
However, Szabo also said most students are not likely getting ADHD medication from health care providers. “One of the bigger issues is when people who do have it prescribed for a medical condition choose to share it,” she said.
It’s not an unfamiliar process to those who have prescriptions. “I gave a few [pills] to friends,” Sasha said. “[One of them] took my medication, a year and a half ago. She was able to do her work but she ended up staying up all night because she took it so late.”
Szabo believes awareness on sharing prescription drugs could go a long way to curbing the supply on campus. “It’s not going to help in their grades—it’s going to put them at risk of heart problems and brain problems with these adverse effects.” The sharing and sale of prescription drugs is also illegal.
But Sasha thinks it’s better than some of the other options that students have. “I think it’s a more healthy alternative [than chugging Red Bull],” said Sasha. “I don’t see it being an issue because it’s accessible—which it is! Yes, the pharmacist puts restrictions on it [but it’s still easy to access].”
That’s a dangerous line of thinking, warns Szabo. “I would say that is a wrong statement, because [prescription misuse] is the number one reason people are sent to the emergency in the hospital when it comes to medication,” said Szabo. “They’re using this medication that wasn’t prescribed to them.”
But Sasha doesn’t see an end in sight for students using prescription drugs. “I think we’re in a period where we need to be like robots. It’s too fast-paced,” she said. “I think we’re noticing now that [the education system] needs a reform … The expectations that they put us on, it forces us to think of other alternatives.”