I used to be a hard-core baseball fan, the kind who juggled three fantasy baseball teams at once, who knew which minor-league prospects were being prepped for “the show,” and who read box scores daily. Then the steroid scandal tore through professional baseball and turned off a lot of fans.
Because the sport seemed tainted.
That’s why I was drawn to the topic of prescription drug use in schools for my novel. In the story, a student-run justice system investigates a prescription drug cheating ring at a boarding school and must confront many of the issues that the ubiquity of these pills can raise.
How is the use of ADHD drugs connected to steroids in baseball? Because both are being used to improve one’s performance.
In fact, the use of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medication for academic performance enhancement has become so pervasive at schools that some colleges have even suggested offering ADHD meds to all students for free – so they can reap the benefits of improved concentration and better focus.
However, there’s evidence that taking ADHD meds solely for an academic boost doesn’t have the desired effect. A recent study led by the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health on nonmedical use of prescription stimulants found that those who took such meds without a prescription had lower GPAs, skipped more classes and spent more time socializing. And because no one is being physically hurt or verbally abused by taking these pills, their misuse in study halls, classrooms and dorms can be dismissed as a nonissue.
But there is also a broader societal impact to ADHD drug abuse that is rarely discussed. It’s the issue of accountability.
Many students simply want to succeed on their own merits, without assistance. What if their grades are pulled down because others, who are using meds for a performance boost, are doing better in school? What if they don’t gain admission to college because of those who used intellect-enhancing drugs? Should they speak up if they know others are using?
Professional sports leagues have banned performance-enhancing drugs because they constitute cheating. Is ADHD use cheating as well? Academic expectations are intense, and teens today are juggling more schoolwork and extracurricular activities than in years past. But nearly every high school and college student either implicitly or explicitly agrees to live by a code of conduct and honor to neither give nor receive help with an assignment.
Many students work hard on their own without assistance to meet the demands of their school workload. Those who opt not to receive help in any form might be the very ones being hurt the most by the escalating use of ADHD meds in schools. Experts points out that it’s perfectly normal to feel scattered or unfocused at times and to be nervous about tests or schoolwork. But that doesn’t mean one has ADHD or should be medicated for the condition.
ADHD affects only 5 to 10 percent of the population. But the more pervasive the occasional use becomes, the more likely anyone taking the meds will be branded as a cheater, even those who truly need them for diagnosed learning disabilities and attention problems.
Given the rampant overuse of these meds, many doctors advocate stringent testing and assessment to determine who should receive ADHD meds. The diagnostic criteria for ADHD is that its symptoms should have been present since before age 7, said Petra Steinbuchel, pediatric psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland and an ADHD expert. The diagnosis should come through clinical assessment as well as from parents, teachers and other adults who have observed the child in various settings, she said.
While there are medical risks in taking any drug that isn’t prescribed by a physician, the larger concern is the more complicated issue. “It’s concerning in persons without ADHD that they can be so primed to feel the need to succeed to rely on external medication to do that,” Steinbuchel said. “What does it say to rely on something else?”
Because success, in school or on the ball field, should come on its own terms.