Columns / Discourse / May 8, 2013

One nation, under Adderall

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.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

Tags:  Adderall ADHD drug abuse Felicia Reed good grade pill Ritalin study drugs

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Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.




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  • Anthony Ingerick

    You take a very focused and harsh view at a small number of the actual population of Adderall and Ritalin users, while demonizing the entire practice, all while citing no credible or really any actual sources for your information. I myself do not use either of these medications, but I know many individuals who do, because of their medical needs, have to utilize them to study. While I agree that the greater societal issues surrounding the pill popping solution that the United States is currently involved in is a major problem, you do not put an emphasis on this, rather you rant and demonize perfectly respectable people. Do not generalize this issue, people will always, and have always abuse medications, but that does not mean that the medication itself is the problem, or the people who used it properly, rather the institutions and societal rules surrounding it are flawed and need to be fixed.

  • Elizabeth Woodyard

    I completely agree with Anthony’s response. Your argument still holds if your replace “Adderall” with “coffee,” and instead of focusing on the abuse of any and all study drugs you instead chose to attack individuals with mental health problems who use these drugs for medical purposes, and you did so in a way that could be classified as hate speech against individuals with ADHD while utilizing blatant sexism with your “suburban housewives” comment to “prove your point.”

  • James Wright-Lee

    I am sure that other students who already enjoy and take for granted their ability to effectively manage their time and busy schedules without the need for psychiatric medications and the burden of mental health issues would be well inclined to agree with your article. However, the research and reasoning which you have employed (or have neglected to employ, depending on one’s view) in order to assess the usage of stimulant medications by children and students in the United States is one of the most blatant perversions of the scientific method I have ever encountered for several reasons. The first is that the sources from which you draw in order to make your claim regarding the societal and personal risks involved in taking stimulant medications are totally useless from a statistical and scientific perspective. This is particularly true in the case of Felicia Reed’s account of her experience with ADHD medication. For starters, Reed is not a student with experience in either psychology or neuroscience: she is a lawyer, and because of this she may very well lack the expertise and knowledge that is essential when attempting to communicate and evaluate a medication in terms of its potential effects upon a large number of people, regardless of its intended use. Also, I hardly believe that a single, subjective account of such an experience is in any way applicable to the myriad of possible reactions to such medications which are possible for any given individual. Not even licensed psychiatrists can gauge a patient’s reaction to a medication with close to 100% certainty.
    Additionally, the New York Times article which you cite in your piece is filled with methodological flaws which throw its findings into serious question. For example, as is described by Maia Szalavitz in her article “Teens Taking ADHD Drugs to Get Good Grades: How Big a Problem Is It?” the authors of “The Risky Rise of the Good Grade Pill” are drawing from an atrociously poor sample in an attempt to make their claims. One, they only contacted 200 individuals for their study. Second, those contacted were a mix of students, teachers, and school faculty which by itself creates conflicts of interest within their sample. And third is that, to put some icing on the cake, only 20% of those contacted (i.e. 40 individuals) even bothered to accept the invitation to participate. Such a sample is not only filled with conflicting interests and logical confounds but is also bunk from a research standpoint in that it is so small in comparison to other studies of the same kind (such as the Monitoring the Future study also mentioned in Szalavitz’s piece) that there is no reason that any educated reader should trust it in the first place.
    This brings me to my second main point: your understanding of the manner in which the brain functions is obviously uninformed by any sort of contextually relevant knowledge, either psychological or neurological. For example, “Having a chemical imbalance in your brain that was diagnosed by a qualified psychiatrist,” as you said, is not actually a procedure that a psychiatrist explicitly conducts when dealing with patients seeking counsel or medical care. Far more often than not clinical psychiatrists, even when working in a hospital or other such environment, operate quite similarly to counselors in that they advise patients on a best course of action in order to confront their problem(s). They don’t strap them into a magical machine which points with 100% certainty to the area of the brain that is causing the issue, as that kind of technology and medical knowledge simply does not exist yet (or may not ever come about).
    Also, I would very much like to be informed as to exactly how, “losing sleep and mortgaging a social life to keep up,” does not induce a neurological response which could just as easily and accurately be described as, “chemically changing your very personality,” as you also claim. One “chemically changes” their personality every time they experience something, whether it be hanging out with friends or shooting heroin into their arm. Additionally, there is absolutely no viable and/or objective manner through which to gauge how much an individual’s personality changes anyhow: for all we know at this point in our history, what we understand as a personality may not exist at all.
    Lastly, what disturbs me and many other members of the Knox community that I have talked with concerning your piece is your blatant use of stereotypes, prejudice, and what can even be described as hate-mongering speech in order to prove your point. In reference to your comment about not being concerned with individuals who “snort Ritalin so they can stay up to memorize the periodic table for personal enrichment,” you also state this in the very next sentence: “But that’s not why these drugs are abused and we all know it.” I and many others on campus want to know what exactly makes you think that you have either the right or the ability to speak for everyone when it comes to their opinion (or their experience for that matter) regarding how people use stimulant medications regardless of whether they acquire them legally or via other means.
    Most disturbing of all, however, is the phrase you used regarding the impact of Adderall’s misuse on society generally: in your own words the, “Misuse of Adderall cheapens disorders such as ADHD the same way that suburban housewives who pop a Prozac everytime it rains cheapens depression.” This statement is, first of all, based upon what can only be described as a sexist stereotype of stay-at-home women and mothers which stems from nothing more or less than a lack of concrete knowledge and research of the topic. Secondly, it is revolting to many other Knox students as well as me due to the fact that it was also run in the same issue of TKS as the front page story titled “SASS Attempts Climate Control” in which the organization addresses recent issues regarding hostile and prejudiced Facebook posts as well as vandalism of their bulletin board. These attacks upon their organization were due to their attempts to eliminate the very same sexist biases and misconceptions prevalent throughout our society which were so readily espoused in order to put momentum behind your opinions.
    In summary this work, though I am aware of the fact that it is an opinion piece, is based upon fatally flawed articles and samples, an explicit lack of relevant knowledge and information concerning the manner in which the brain functions from the perspectives of both psychology and neuroscience and, due at least in part to these procedural shortcomings, resorts to stereotypes and prejudiced heuristics in order to force its point upon the reader. Regardless of the fact that this is an expression of your personal opinion on this issue it is your duty as a member of the press, and as a co-news editor nonetheless, to back up that opinion with factual information and accounts in order to accurately portray it to your audience. Though you are entitled to your opinion and beliefs just as every other individual is, in this particular case the expression of that opinion will reach the eyes, ears, and self-images of many different individuals both in agreement with your position as well as victimized and stigmatized by it.

  • Tom Courtright

    While Matt’s reasoning may not be perfect (like everyone’s), I think Knox students have a tendency to rush to the defense of most drug-users and another tendency to assume prejudice on the part of another. Adderall is complicated, as we all know – I know ADHD patients that have stopped taking it because they “don’t want to have to take a drug to be ‘normal'”. Other people with no discernible attention problems take it weekly and report no real problems. One obvious question surrounding attention disorders and their ‘cures’ is the simple question of where this comes from – I know of nowhere else (and I’ve been a few other places) that so many people are diagnosed of attention problems, or prescribed so very many pills. And this is what Matt was trying to get across with his comment about suburban housewives – that there is a culture of prescription pills in America, by which we are quick to diagnose short-term depression or youthful distraction as psychological conditions, and then mandate pills to be the answer. It was certainly not a misogynist dig – he was simply using a commonly known abuse of this system.



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