Researchers Doubt Many Wealthier Teens Need ADHD Medication

Posted on February 19th, 2015
Posted in Young Adults

A new study published in the American Sociological Review finds that teenagers from higher income families are more likely to take medication for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder only during the school year. In addition, this study found that students in states with higher academic accountability standards were more likely to take stimulants, again only during the school year, leading researchers to question whether the youths truly suffer from ADHD or are simply looking for improved academic performance.

The number of children and teenagers being diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder has grown significantly in the past decade, from 7.8 percent to around 11 percent.

The number of young people being medicated for ADHD has grown even more rapidly in recent years. The number of kids and teenagers with current diagnoses of ADHD who were being medicated for the condition rose by 28 percent from 2007 to 2011.

The rapid rise in diagnosing and medicating ADHD has led many experts to suspect that this disorder is being widely over-diagnosed. For many people, the idea of ADHD may seem like a welcome solution when they have children who are exhibiting chronic behavioral problems, defiance, academic struggles and other symptoms frequently found in ADHD sufferers.

Students Who Face Academic Pressure Turn to Medication

Wealthier families are more likely to live in school districts with top-rated public schools or to put their children in private schools. In both situations, children are likely to face more competition and pressure to perform. These adolescents may also come from fairly high-achieving families who expect strong academic performances from their offspring and who have the resources to seek out solutions, whether that be hiring a tutor or using so-called “study drugs.”

Stimulant medications used to treat ADHD, including Ritalin and Adderall, can help students concentrate for longer periods of time and also help reduce forgetfulness. These medications create a tunnel-like focus that helps students zero-in on academic work in a way that can be very difficult in a world full of distractions.

Risks of Misuse, Abuse of ADHD Medications

Stimulants carry the risk of certain health problems, including reduced appetite and sleep and increased body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. Misuse or abuse of stimulants can result in malnutrition, serious cardiovascular problems and hostility or paranoia. With abuse, ADHD drugs also carry the risk of dependency and addiction, because incorrect doses or methods of use can result in a dopamine rush to the brain, which can alter the brain’s chemistry.

ADHD medication misuse and abuse has become strongly associated with the academic pressures as well as the comparative freedom of college. Teenagers in middle school and high school are much more likely to take medication under the supervision of their parents and to rely on parents to fill and renew prescriptions.

However, for adolescents who do not really suffer from ADHD, there are risks involved even in taking stimulants as prescribed. Firstly, there are the physical health risks such as high blood pressure. In addition, there is the danger of teaching adolescents that it is acceptable to be using medications for unintended purposes.

Jennifer Jennings, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at New York University, suggests that it is problematic for young people to be taking ADHD medications only during the school year. It may be that some adolescents are stopping their medication during the summer when in reality they have a disorder that could benefit from medication year-round. It also seems likely that many adolescents who take stimulants just for school are not true ADHD sufferers.

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