06/12/2012 10:04 am ET

High School Students Turn To Study Drugs To Enhance Academic Performance

Once a habit indulged primarily by college and graduate students, prescription stimulant abuse has found a niche among students in academically elite New York City private schools, according to The New York Times.

Used primarily to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, amphetamines like Adderall and Vyvanese aenable razor-sharp focus and the ability to pull all-nighters without distraction when taken by those who do not have the disorder. They are also classified by the D.E.A. as Class 2 controlled substances -- the same category as cocaine and morphine -- ranking them among the most addictive substances that have a medical use. Adderall has been coined the new "Red Bull for teens," a "homework pill" of sorts.

Teenagers interviewed by The Times described how they get the pills from their friends, buy them from student dealers or feign symptoms to their parents and doctors in order to procure prescriptions.

“Generally, if you keep playing the angsty-teen role, you’ll get something good,” said one senior dealer at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia. He claims to lie to his psychiatrist about feeling very distracted or anxious all the time.

Citing IMS Health, a health care information company, The Times reports that prescriptions for ADHD administered to young people ages 10 to 19 has risen 26 percent since 2007, to nearly 21 million annually. Still, it is difficult to accurately say how many use the stimulants in a study aid capacity. Doctors and teens from over 15 schools nationwide estimated that between 15 and 40 percent of students do so.

Adderall has been considered the most abused prescription drug in America. In an informal study of 256 recent high school graduates conducted by MinnPost in February, 22 percent said they had taken Adderall or Ritalin without a prescription during high school. Approximately 54 percent knew of at least one person who had, and 89 percent acknowledged a portion of their classmates were using the drugs unprescribed.

According to Joel Oberstar, chief medical officer for PrairieCare in Minnesota, the majority of prescriptions for psychiatric medications are prescribed by primary-care doctors as opposed to psychiatrists, who are more experienced with the medication. Thus, more psychiatric medications could be made available to students who have no need for them.

A study by Michigan State University economic researcher Todd Elder found that 900,000 children in the U.S. could have received an ADHD diagnosis in error.

The potential side effects of Adderall are similar to that of cocaine abuse: increased heart rate, insomnia and appetite suppression. Doctors say abuse of prescription stimulants can bring about depression and mood swings caused by sleep deprivation, as well as heart irregularities, acute exhaustion or psychosis during withdrawal. Drug counselors also claim the pills can serve as a gateway drug to painkillers and sleep aids.

There are legal repercussions for distributing the drugs, as just giving a friend an Adderall or Vyvanese capsule is the same as selling it, and can be prosecuted as a felony.

Some question the ethical implications of these so-called “brain steroids,” suggesting that the extra studying hours and enhanced concentration during exams constitutes an unfair advantage. Others maintain that the drugs “don’t give you the answers,” and are merely a substitute for tutoring or other means of test preparation, according to The Times.