Stimulant ‘Study’ Drugs: The Ethics of Addiction

Across the country, more and more kids are getting diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and prescribed stimulant drugs to address the issue. Though studies demonstrate that kids who are living with intrusive symptoms due to ADHD will do better in life if they are treated appropriately, there is also evidence to support the fact that some young people are abusing their medications or selling them to other kids who would abuse them. Because these medications are highly addictive when used nonmedically, it is causing a number of serious issues in education – physical, mental, and ethical.

Though some high school and college kids may abuse stimulant medications like Adderall and Vyvanse for the purposes of getting high, most who take the pills without a prescription do so in order to facilitate long, focused study sessions and negate the need for sleep. With so many responsibilities and expectations placed upon young people today, those who want to get into the best colleges and grad schools, and hired by the best firms, know that they need to have excellent grades in intense classes, demonstrate dedication to their community, and go above and beyond in appropriate standardized testing. Additionally, most young people also want to have a social life, so many turn to pills to help them facilitate managing these goals.

Students turn to pills to help them facilitate managing these goals

Though it is understandable why a student may seek “assistance” beyond a strong cup of coffee to stay up and cram for exams or get to parties after long hours at work, it does create an uneven playing field when some use what are essentially “performance-enhancing” drugs. Those who don’t take the medications may not have a resume that can compete with the resumes of those who do take the medications on a regular basis.

Is this ethical, and if not, is there anything we can do about it?

Physical and Mental Health Implications

It’s important to emphasize that the primary issues with abuse of stimulant drugs like Adderall or Ritalin are the negative health consequences that can result. The drugs often have the effect of suppressing the appetite, causing kids to miss out on healthy eating that will give them the nutrients they need to feed their developing brains. The developing brain is another issue – the human brain continues to develop until the mid-20s and use of any substances can have a negative impact on cognitive and emotional development.

Additionally, mental health can also be negatively impacted by chronic stimulant abuse. Many have fallen victim to extreme mental health symptoms, including anxiety disorders, psychosis, and suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

The Question of Ethics

Though the mental and physical effects of stimulant drug abuse are severe, it is also important to ask questions about the direction of our future based on a generation that may find it acceptable to make use of prescription drugs in order to perform better on tests.

For example, if people begin taking Adderall during high school to help study for standardized testing while maintaining good grades in AP classes and continuing to practice for a school sports team or other extracurricular activity, then it is likely that they will feel it necessary to continue that practice when in college.

During college, people may continue taking drugs to manage heavy course loads and internships, and to study for standardized testing to get into grad school. Of course, once in grad school, it is likely that these students will then feel it necessary to continue taking the drugs to complete their degrees. Once in place at a competitive firm or making their mark in a new profession, it is unlikely that these people will stop taking the medications.

At this point, drug abuse has been going on for 10-15 years, and the negative physical and mental health effects are adding up. How long will they be competent in their jobs? And what will happen to others who took a more healthful approach and as a result did not make the cut into the right college, grad school, or job along the way?

Creating Positive Change in the School System

In general, the best way to handle any problem that has the potential to deepen over time is to stop it before it starts or identify it in its early stages and immediately apply appropriate treatment measures. Some options include:

  • – Increasing education about the risks and dangers of prescription drug abuse in middle school and high school
  • – Educating parents and prescribing physicians about the problem and helping them recognize the signs of prescription medication abuse
  • – Encouraging parents of children who have a prescription for stimulant medications to maintain control over the prescription throughout high school
  • – Having prescribing physicians regularly check in with those taking these prescriptions and screen for abuse issues
  • – Implementing widespread education and prevention efforts on college campuses
  • – Minimizing the ability of a college student to get a prescription for stimulant drugs without demonstration of clear medical need

The Center on Young Adult Health and Development reports that about 31 percent of college students have abused prescription stimulant medications at least one time while enrolled in college. Almost twice that number report being offered the drug or having the opportunity to take the drug. Is stimulant drug abuse an issue for a young person you love?

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