07/19/2012 11:20 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2012

Do 'Study Drugs' Breed a Nation of Winners -- or Cheaters?

America is a nation obsessed with winning. We're so afraid that our kids won't be prepared for jobs when they finish school -- which could ultimately cost us our tenuous competitive edge in the global economy -- that we pile on the homework and make getting into college the focal point of life from middle school on.

Is this obsession with achievement equipping our children for real life? Or are they simply getting the message that it's no longer about how they play the game, but about winning at all costs? Recent trends suggest that kids aren't working harder but "smarter," often with the aid of dangerous prescription drugs.

"Smart Pills" Invade the Classroom

Performance-enhancing drugs used to be a "sports" problem. Now they are an issue for anyone who wants to stay competitive in school. Disproportionately, it is the teens earning As and Bs, striving to get into the nation's top universities -- not the stereotypical druggies -- who are finding themselves sidelined by a stint in drug rehab for prescription drug abuse.

Children are learning that success comes not by training, practice and hard work, but by taking shortcuts. We tell young people, "Don't use drugs," but our beliefs and actions encourage them to win at all costs. There's a whole group of scientists who, in a 2008 editorial in Nature, welcomed the use of "cognitive enhancers" to produce a nation of people performing at their best. They have been joined by a contingency of parents who are willing to overlook, or even encourage, their children to boost their academic performance using prescription drugs.

Not surprisingly, young people are less likely to view study drugs as cheating than steroid use in sports. More youth are asking, "Why work hard, stay up all night studying and still risk not doing well when you can pop a pill, get good grades, and make teachers, parents and coaches happy?" The question some have asked is, how is using performance-enhancing drugs to improve grades any more fair than using steroids to play better baseball?

To the Head of the Class, But at What Price?

One in 10 teens has used Adderall or Ritalin without a doctor's prescription, reports The Partnership at Studies show 1 in 4 college students have misused ADHD medications. And there's no reason to assume prescription drug abuse ends after college. Researchers have reported that professors, scientists and academics also misuse prescription drugs to improve their professional standing.

Students use prescription stimulants to enhance their focus and boost their energy, which reportedly allows them to study faster, remember more and earn the grades expected by the nation's elite universities. The drugs are relatively cheap and easy to get, usually from friends, student dealers or by faking ADHD symptoms to get a prescription.

What few teens (and apparently, few adults) realize is that misusing prescription drugs has consequences. Studies show that abusing ADHD drugs can lead to depression, mood swings, exhaustion, heart rate and blood pressure irregularities, and psychosis. In large doses, users may experience convulsions and hallucinations.These risks are particularly worrisome among adolescents and young adults whose brains and bodies are still developing at a rapid rate.

One of the most severe, yet often overlooked, risks is addiction. "Study drugs," which include Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin and Focalin, have been classified as Schedule II controlled substances (in the same class as cocaine) by the Drug Enforcement Administration because they have high potential for abuse. Teens who abuse ADHD meds are also more likely to abuse prescription painkillers, sleep aids and illicit drugs like cocaine, meth or heroin.

Cooperation Over Competition

A shift away from performance-enhancing drugs won't happen until we teach our children the value of cooperation over competition. Human beings are not inherently competitive, research suggests, but rather learn to compete as a result of cultural norms and social training. A more natural -- and more productive -- approach requires going against the "scarcity" mindset that says my success requires your failure.

It not only feels better to live, play and work in an environment where no one loses, but it is more likely to breed achievement, research suggests. Studies show that stress, depression and low self-esteem result from competition, whereas cooperation has been linked to emotional maturity and a strong sense of self. When other people are viewed as opponents rather than friends or collaborators, there is a lack of trust that prohibits creative problem-solving and full utilization of every individual's unique talents and skills.

Parents hope that competition will help their kids "toughen up" for the inevitable hardships of life. And while there is some benefit in challenging ourselves to find out what we're capable of, competition often has the opposite effect. The humiliation of losing can leave lasting scars, while the euphoria of victory fades quickly because it is based on a shaky sense of self-worth. Somewhere down the line, every winner will lose. Someone will always be better, smarter, faster.

A New Definition of Success

Competition can produce great accomplishments, but is it teaching our children the kind of lessons that will matter 10 or 20 years down the line? Even for those who go on to receive top honors from the nation's best universities and land prestigious jobs with impressive salaries, have they learned anything about the type of person they want to be? Are they content?

We need a new definition of intelligence based not only on academic prowess but also emotional intelligence, life skills and other abilities -- and a new definition of success based on a young person's health and satisfaction rather than the name of the college they'll be attending. Having goals and going after them is admirable, but living someone else's dream is a waste of a child's unique talents. Genuine confidence isn't built on achievement alone but also who each child is as a human being, regardless of how they stack up to anyone else.

David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment programs that includes Promises Treatment Centers, The Ranch outside Nashville, The Sexual Recovery Institute, and The Recovery Place.

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