By Zoe Cate and Sofia Olsson, Online Editor-in-Chief and Copy Editor
// Welcome to Generation Adderall: a generation of students struggling with a dependence on a tiny blue pill as a “study buddy” or a party pick-me-up. What was once a drug exclusively used by those with attention deficit disorders, most commonly Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Adderall has evolved into a multipurpose medication. Students now take advantage of the drug to study, party, or make a few extra dollars.
Acalanes represents a microcosm of the nationwide epidemic of illegal Adderall usage among high school and college students. According to a survey conducted by Blueprint, 83.5% of the 188 students who responded report that they have heard of students taking stimulants without a prescription.
The American Psychiatric Association defines ADHD as a brain disorder which results in hyperactive brain activity and impulsive behaviors. These symptoms interfere with one’s ability to focus, remain still for long periods of time, and function in typical educational and social environments. In order to combat these symptoms, doctors prescribe a variety of stimulant drugs. The most commonly prescribed among these is Adderall.
“They all work through dopamine receptors, and dopamine is the biggest neurotransmitter that helps with focus,” Dr. Mary Staunton, head of Psychology at Kaiser Permanente, said regarding stimulants.
Staunton said, with regard to her ADHD patients, stimulants help calm parts of the brains’ and allow sustained attention for long periods of time. This, in turn, enables them to complete tasks while avoiding distractions.
Acalanes Alumna Claire Gallagher illustrates how Adderall works in the brain of someone with ADHD. Gallagher was diagnosed with the disorder in eighth grade and started taking the stimulant towards the end of her senior year of high school in 2018.
“It has definitely helped me get more stuff done this year, and it’s also helped my test scores because I can study for longer periods of time,” Gallagher said.
For those with an attention deficit disorder, the medication promises a quick fix for undesirable symptoms.
“The medical viewpoint is, ‘How can I treat you?’ They see a patient and they prescribe a medication to address the problem. There is also therapy or behavior work, but that is more long term solution, whereas if you take a medication that changes someone’s behavior, it can be instant, which is gratifying to everyone involved,” Acalanes High School psychologist Emily Reichardt said.
Although the stimulant offers many benefits for those with attention deficit disorders, these gains are accompanied by lesser known, unpleasant side effects.
“They may feel dampened down so that they feel like it affects their personality and that other people notice that part of it,” Staunton said.
The Adderall epidemic at Acalanes echoes the drastic increase in prescriptions throughout the United States. According to the Addiction Center, about 16 million prescriptions for stimulants like Adderall were written in 2012, approximately triple the amount written in 2008.
The rise of prescriptions is due in part to the fact that those struggling with a variety of issues, from anxiety to dyslexia, can be misdiagnosed with an attention disorder since an Adderall prescription may mitigate some of their negative symptoms.
“So, you have a young kid, who is having some sort of behavioral problem, and then if you give them a stimulant medication, often then the behavior changes in the direction of improvement, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have ADHD,” Reichardt said.
Some people, however, falsify symptoms altogether and seek only to check the boxes needed to receive a prescription.
“I feel like kids definitely almost bluff a little bit of their own problems just to get a prescription, not just for their own use, but because also they can sell it and make a little cash,” junior Patrick Feigen said.
Reichardt finds that flaws of the diagnostic process of ADHD allow people to deceive medical professionals and obtain unwarranted Adderall prescriptions.
“There is a symptom checklist and diagnostic criteria and it is not always clear to me that is always being rigorously evaluated,” Reichardt said.
The frequency of misdiagnoses furthers the diversion of Adderall from students with legitimate prescriptions to friends or paying customers who use the drug illegally, cultivating an illegal secondary market.
“The amount of prescriptions out there is so worrisome because it’s being what we would call a ‘diverted cable’. People go to a doctor, get a prescription, and they don’t use it for its intended purpose. They either sell it or they’re using it recreationally,” Staunton said.
Even Acalanes is home to an illegal secondary market among the student population. Blueprint spoke to four Acalanes students regarding their illicit use of Adderall. Because none of these students have been prescribed Adderall and therefore are liable to misdemeanor charges, those quoted have been renamed Student 1 through 4. When asked how they obtain Adderall, Students 1-4 all referenced buying from friends and classmates who have prescriptions.
“I usually get my Adderall from my friends who have prescriptions, it’s pretty easy to get and pretty cheap,” Student 3 said.
For those purchasing Adderall illegally, inexperience often leaves teens swindled by their dealers.
“Some people will rip you off, but when you use it enough you start to get a feel for the average price,” Student 3 said. “Prices usually go up around finals because that’s when demand is highest,” Student 3 added, elaborating on Adderall’s reputation as a study stimulant.
Although many students casually discuss the buying and selling of prescription stimulants, the illegality of their actions is not to be dismissed.
“If you are found illegally with a prescription that does not belong to you it is a misdemeanor. If you sell a prescription it is a felony. So there are legal and financial components that go along with it,” Jaime Rich, Environmental Prevention Program Director at Center for Human Development, said.
Despite the illegality of their purchasing, many students claim Adderall helps them attain results in the classroom otherwise deemed impossible,making the risk worth the reward.
Reichardt notes that the changing culture and structure of modern schools cultivates the current classroom environment which requires extreme focus.
“The bigger picture problem is that we have these ideas of what a school day is supposed to look like and there is so much more academic focus, especially at really young grades now. When I was in kindergarten, there was a play kitchen in the classroom… Now you are going to just see rows of desks,” Reichardt said.
The rigorous academic expectations forced upon students creates a seemingly unattainable standard, which often drives students to mitigate their immense workloads with the help of stimulants.
“At Acalanes High School, and frankly many high schools across the country, the performance level that young people are committed to is maybe a little bit unrealistic and students will drive themselves to the extreme because it’s thought to be the norm,” Staunton said.
According to the four Acalanes students, their illegal purchasing of Adderall proved beneficial in the classroom.
“I was not prepared to take the ACT and I took the ACT while on a lot of Adderall and I just got my scores back today and I got a 30,” Student 1 said.
While Student 1 utilized Adderall’s focus enhancing properties to make up for a lack of studying with hyperfocus during the test, Student 2 chose to use the drug to aid the studying process.
“I first started using Adderall when I was studying for an AP Euro final during sophomore year. There was a lot of information that I needed to study and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own,” Student 2 said.
The number of assignments, tests, and projects students receive can drive them to place academic excellence above the law.
“I think of Adderall as my first option when I have a big test, paper, or final… It helps me focus and helps me get what I need to do done, and it allows me to work faster than normal and for me to be interested in what I’m working on since I’m not as distracted,” Student 2 said.
Adderall’s ability to increase one’s capacity to focus makes it the ideal study drug. The perception of Adderall as a “smart pill” creates a population of students struggling with a dependence on the drug.
“I definitely think that some kids view taking Adderall as a requirement for things like finals week and feel that they need it in order to do alright for finals,” Student 4 said.
Adderall also allows students to feel as though they are in control of their studying. The stimulant alleviates stress and causes many users to feel they cannot get their schoolwork done without it.
“It makes me very focused, like for schoolwork, and it also just gives you a huge confidence boost, like increasing your own idea of your ability to do things,” Student 1 said.
The reputation Adderall has garnered is rooted in its study enhancing capabilities. However, for those who do not possess attention deficit disorders, the medication not only increases focus but also offers feelings of euphoria. This high results from a users’ heightened levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, two vital neurotransmitters that regulate mood and behavior.
“One thing I love about Adderall is how happy it can make me…Feeling incredibly happy and wanting to focus is a wonderful feeling,” Student 3 said. “I 100% recommend it.”
Nevertheless, illicit users of Adderall can encounter negative side-effects of the drug. While stimulants help calm the brain of someone with ADHD, they actually increase hyperactivity in the brain of someone lacking the disorder.
“For people who do not have ADHD, generally the stimulants are like having too much caffeine and the risks are the same. You could have palpitations or simply feel uneasy and jittery and not sleep well,” Staunton said.
Although the illicit use of Adderall is primarily associated with study help, the drug has outgrown this reputation and is now a staple at high school and college parties.
“I’ve been to a lot of parties where I walk into the living room and I just see lines of Adderall,” Student 2 said.
The teenage brain’s affinity for short term rewards provides a strong motivation for using Adderall at parties.
“If something is all around you and you’ve seen that your friends take it regularly, it can lead you to underestimate the significance of the decision to take it,” Staunton said. “You add that to the teenage brain which underestimates potential downsides or long term consequences of things and overestimates immediate gratification.”
Adderall’s growing presence at parties is due in part to the idea that the stimulant is not a serious drug due to its ubiquity and unstigmatized reputation.
“I think that since a lot of people are prescribed Adderall they don’t view it as a hard drug, but it also gives you a high effect. It’s super available and people aren’t as afraid of the risks…The fact that it is a prescription drug and doctors are prescribing it a lot means that there can’t be too many negatives,” Student 2 said.
While many students do not have concerns regarding their immediate physical wellbeing after taking Adderall, the risk of developing a dependence on the drug deters its frequent use.
“I actually try to put a limit on how much I can use Adderall because too much of it just turns you into kind of a meth head. Because Adderall is essentially like meth and the comedown and stuff after, like post-Adderall come down, it’s just like, why did I do this?” Student 1 said.
For medical professionals such as Staunton, the use of the drug for recreational purposes raises concerns due to its potent chemical composition. Despite the fact that Adderall has similar properties to the notoriously dangerous methamphetamine, commonly known as meth, students consider it a safer alternative to what they consider “hard drugs.”
“But it’s not coke. And I mean, like, when I see kids railing lines of Adderall I definitely just give it a little eye roll and then just do a line myself,” Student 1 said.
Whether or not one defines Adderall as a hard drug, the outcome can never be predicted when consuming substances in a party scenario.
“If you’re taking it when you’re partying, you are not going to be sleeping and if you are mixing it with a central nervous system depressant like alcohol it’s going to be very unpredictable,” Dr. Staunton said.
Additionally, the appealing high offered by Adderall proves fleeting. Adderall provides an initial surge of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain which later plateaus in a brutal “comedown.”
“I remember calling all of my friends and just crying and trying to get someone to understand what I was feeling. My mind was swarming with bad thoughts and I couldn’t sleep. It was terrifying,” Student 3 said.
The elongated comedown period serves as a primary reason for students to limit their consumption of Adderall.
“You feel grumpy, mad, sad, and frustrated the whole next day and it’s a real mood dampener,” Student 3 said.
While some students suffer only from a lack of sleep, others experience far more unpleasant symptoms.
“I was just zoned out. I was freaking out. Like I was tweaking, like actually tweaking. I was super worried about my heart because it felt like it was beating too fast for too long,” Student 1 said.
In spite of the potential dangers of taking stimulants, or any unprescribed drug, adolescents continue surrender themselves to the cult mentality and chase the high that comes with Adderall.
“Well, I mean, I don’t really think there’s a ton of danger to it… Sometimes I snort it because people at parties are just like, ‘You wanna do a line of addy?’’ Student 1 said.