Living with ADHD
Students like Nick Jackson are prescribed to ADHD medicine at a time when more and more students without ADHD are using the drug to concentrate.
Nick Jackson walks into class, waits to receive his test and looks around the room while fidgeting with his mechanical pencil. Once the test begins he tries to scratch his name into the paper, only to break the tip of his pencil halfway through.
He doodles on the paper until he becomes bored and then begins to scan the test for problems he can easily solve. He intentionally disregards the instructions to “show his work” because the process of showing work hinders his ability to solve problems. More often than not, he finds himself unable to finish tests.
For Jackson, a Ball State freshman, this is an average test-taking experience. He is diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, and is currently taking a prescription medication for treatment.
At age 13, Jackson was prescribed a high dosage of the drug Vyvanse, one of many psychostimulant medications used to improve focus.
“I was unable to focus during school,” Jackson said. “We saw the doctor because my grades were suffering.”
The Center for Disease Control says that approximately 6.4 million, or 11 percent, of children between ages four and 17 in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. As a result, many of them have been issued prescriptions for drugs like Vyvanse. Depending on when they are diagnosed, students with ADHD may have already been taking the medication for as many as 15 years by the time they reach college.
The regular side effects of the stimulants include loss of appetite, headaches and sleeping problems, all of which can be managed with a physician’s help. The long-term psychological and emotional side effects are less documented due to their variable nature. Jackson described his experience after six years of taking the medication.
“You kind of go back to normal, but you’ve always got this kind of lasting [effect],” Jackson said. “The medicine just leaves something on you.”
As prescriptions have become more common, a greater number of students are aware of how the medication may be beneficial and many have began abusing the drug for academic and recreational purposes.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says that as more prescriptions for stimulants have been issued in the U.S., the number of ADHD medication-related emergencies like cardiac arrest has increased drastically from 2,303 in 2004 to more than 17,000 in 2011.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, students who abuse the medication take it without realizing how exactly their regimens work, sometimes relying on them and developing full-blown addictions.
Jackson said he has noticed a widespread use among students who don’t have a prescription and use the drug simply to stay awake or to concentrate longer.
“It doesn’t surprise me that people want to take this ‘miracle pill’ that allows them to stay up without eating or sleeping, and their only desire is to do their schoolwork,” Jackson said. “They perform at a level that otherwise they wouldn’t be performing.”
Jackson’s view is a fairly common one among many of today’s students who believe the medication’s benefits can help them pay attention and do their schoolwork.
Logan, a Ball State freshman who asked that his last name not be disclosed, said his first time taking ADHD drugs was negative.
“It was actually one experience that I don’t feel very good about,” he said. “I had a paper to write that I had put off, so I called my friend who was prescribed Vyvanse, and he let me buy a pill off of him for $5.”
He then approached his parents about becoming prescribed because he felt it helped him be more engaged in learning.
“It feels kind of strange, like cheating,” he said. “But I felt I was more like everyone else at that point.”
Ball State professor of educational psychology Eric Pierson runs the Psychoeducational Diagnostic Intervention Clinic at Ball State, a resource for students that assesses any psychological issues they could be experiencing, including ADHD.
“It’s a problem in the sense that it encourages people to think about medication in ways other than ameliorating their [ADHD] symptoms, but really that these [medications] should be used for some other purpose,” Pierson said.
In 2013, the Associated Press said that the increases in the number of American children diagnosed had slowed down, meaning the majority of kids with the disorder are diagnosed and receiving treatment.
Despite their risks, the CDC says stimulant medications are the best option physicians have to help their patients live a normal life with minimal setbacks. However, Dr. Pierson said complete normalcy is difficult for people who take the medication. He suggests the best outcome for people with ADHD is to use medication and intervention treatments.
“Somebody who is put on ADHD medication is typically not going to return to the normal level of attention [as those without the disorder],” Pierson said, “So it helps, but there will still be some difficulties.”
Jackson said his intent is to live his life like anybody else by finishing his education and getting a job—the only difference between him and other students is that he takes a pill each morning