by Su Robotti
Students have lots of ways to get better grades. They plan their study time, exercise to lower stress and some turn to "study drugs." Ritalin and Adderall, drugs that can produce significant benefits when used appropriately by those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can be dangerous and addictive when used by young adults who don't have ADHD. And, they’re not very effective for improved learning.
Our son is in college, and we have ongoing discussions about his grades and study habits. He has friends who use amphetamines like Ritalin and Adderall to try to improve their grades. We encourage him not to, and we make sure he's aware of the side effects and the long-term risks to those whose brains don't need the drugs. I'm concerned that many students and their parents aren't so aware.
I started MedShadow Foundation as an online resource about side effects and long-term effects of prescription medication. Drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin can make a student more alert and productive. However, these drugs work by limiting the brain's ability to switch between tasks. When used by non-ADHD students, they can impair creativity in the long run. Ritalin and Adderall can also cause dependency in non-ADHD individuals. In the short term, these stimulants can lead to increased heart rate, irritability, insomnia, appetite loss, headaches, nausea and arrhythmia, which can lead to cardiovascular issues.
Now that my son is in college and feeling pressure during exam time, I talk to him three or four days a week to make sure he's handling the stress well. I urge other parents to start the conversation with their sons and daughters about how they are managing school pressure. Ask your child if he or she has considered taking ADHD drugs to help get through the final weeks of the semester.
Talking about the possible misuse of ADHD drugs can be difficult, but the following techniques have helped me maintain an ongoing dialogue:
Stay in touch regularly. Young adults can easily become immersed in their own busy lives. It's important to keep in contact—regular video chat, FaceTime or Skype communication is preferable—so you can see for yourself how your child is doing, as well as look for signs of extreme stress or drug use.
Share coping skills and techniques. The compressed end-of-semester timetable is anxiety-producing, with final paper deadlines and exams bundled within a short time. In advance, ask, "What will you do to manage your final exam schedule? What kind of tension relievers work best for you?" Provide stress-relieving examples that work for you, like exercise, meditation, nature walks, etc. Parents can help to find or make these resources available.
Manage your expectations. Don't add more pressure during exam week. One grade on a single exam is not a reflection of your child's worth. Reassure her that you are in her corner.
Get to know your child's friends. Your student's peer group can provide excellent insight into how your child is doing and if his peers handle academic pressure in healthy ways.
Talk to a student health adviser. Find out how the school is addressing ADHD drug misuse on campus and what counseling resources are available if needed.
Suzanne B. Robotti is founder and president of MedShadow Foundation, an online advocacy source to educate patients on the side effects of prescription medications.