A while back, The New York Times ran a piece entitled “The Risky Rise of the Good Grade Pill,” detailing a sudden rise in abuse of prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin by perfectly healthy teens who use them to ace tests and pull all-night study sessions.
Overwhelmed by their workloads and faced with the terrible alternative of developing effective study habits and time management skills, they have resorted instead to what seems to be the modern American solution to all of life’s problems: take a pill and make it all go away.
Health risks (depression, mood swings, irregular heartbeats) exist, but they are not my main concern. People have a right to endanger their own health if they feel so inclined. The problem lies elsewhere.
A lawyer named Felicia Reed posted an excellent piece online after The New York Times story about her experiences. Having been diagnosed with ADHD in college, she started taking the drugs to find that the pills were indeed magic. Her grades shot up to straight As, but she writes, “I felt chunks of my personality disappear.”
She never used them again, though had to suffer the indignity of being berated by professors in law school who were disappointed she wasn’t more like her “studious classmates,” whose study habits she knew were more medical than memorization.
Therein is the real threat of abuse of these drugs.
If people want to snort Ritalin so they can stay up to memorize the periodic table for personal enrichment, they are more than welcome to do so.
But that’s not why these drugs are abused and we all know it. They are being abused to game the rat race that characterizes life at competitive high schools and universities. This is an arms race, and like all arms races, ultimately proves destructive to everyone involved.
Why should a student be forced to put themselves at risk to keep up with their classmates? Losing sleep and mortgaging a social life to keep up is one thing. Chemically changing your very personality is quite another. That should be deemed unacceptable.
Mental illness is a very serious problem and often lies undiagnosed. One of the reasons is the stigma that surrounds it, caused in no small part by people who think that having disorganized lives qualifies as a valid medical condition. It does not. Having a chemical imbalance in your brain that was diagnosed by a qualified psychiatrist is a real condition.
Misuse of Adderall cheapens disorders such as ADHD the same way that suburban housewives who pop a Prozac everytime it rains cheapens depression. If the stigma surrounding mental illness is ever to be broken, it will require the people who need drugs and the people who get them to correlate far better than is currently the case.
We, as a society, can keep moving in that direction. A great place to start would be to make the use of “study drugs” unacceptable.