Study: ADHD Stimulant Misuse Rising Among Teens​

The misuse of ADHD stimulants among teenagers is becoming an alarming trend, highlighting the urgent need for increased awareness, education, and prevention strategies.
stimulant misuse rising among teens

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The Rise in Stimulant Misuses Among Teens

Researchers have discovered a strong link between the use of prescription stimulant therapy for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the misuse of these prescription stimulants by middle and high school students.

The study1, published in JAMA Network Open, emphasizes the importance of evaluations and education in schools and communities to prevent medication-sharing among teenagers. This is particularly crucial since the non-medical use of prescription stimulants among teens is more common than misuse of any other prescription drug, including opioids and benzodiazepines.

Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)2 at the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the study analyzed data collected from 2005 to 2020 by the Monitoring the Future (MTF) study3.

MTF is a large survey examining legal and illicit drug use among American adolescents in eighth, 10th, and 12th grade, also supported by NIDA.

NIDA Director Nora Volkow, M.D., said, “The drug supply has rapidly changed, and what appears to be medications—bought online or shared among friends or family members—can contain fentanyl or other potent illicit substances that can lead to overdoses.

It’s crucial to raise awareness of these new risks for teens.” She added that it’s also essential to provide the necessary resources and education to prevent misuse and support teenagers during this critical period in their lives when they face unique experiences and new stressors.”

Stimulant Prescriptions for ADHD Have Increased in the US

Stimulant therapy is a proven treatment for ADHD, but it can be harmful if used without a prescription or doctor’s advice. 

Long-term misuse can cause health problems like heart issues, depression, overdoses, psychosis, anxiety, seizures, and addiction. Past research shows that more than half of teenagers who misuse these prescription drugs get them for free from friends or family. 

ADHD diagnoses and stimulant prescriptions have gone up a lot in the US over the past 20 years, but not many studies have looked at the link between this therapy and misuse in schools. This is the first big study that looks at how common this misuse is among eighth, 10th, and 12th graders across the country. 

The Impact of School and Individual Factors

Researchers from the University of Michigan looked at how school and individual factors were connected to prescription stimulant misuse. They surveyed over 230,000 students in more than 3,000 schools and found that the number of students misusing these drugs varied greatly between schools, from 0% to over 25%. 

Schools with more students (12% or higher) using stimulant therapy for ADHD had the highest number of students misusing drugs (8% of the school). On the other hand, schools with fewer students (0 to 6% of the school) using the therapy had lower rates of misuse (4 to 5% of the school).

Some school features linked to higher misuse rates include having more educated parents, being in non-Northeastern areas and suburbs, having more white students, and having medium levels of binge drinking. However, the link between ADHD stimulant therapy and misuse was still strong even considering other factors like substance use and school demographics.

Newer research shows that teens who have taken ADHD medications, stimulant or non-stimulant, are at a high risk of misusing prescription stimulants and using drugs like cocaine and meth. It’s important to understand these are connections, not causes, and the main goal is to create better ways to help and protect teens

What's the Solution?

Study author Sean Esteban McCabe, Ph.D., emphasized that the main focus shouldn’t be on reducing stimulant prescriptions for students who require them but rather on improving methods of storing, monitoring, and screening stimulant usage among young people to prevent misuse.

He noted that since stimulant misuse varies among schools, evaluating each school and developing tailored interventions that suit their specific needs is crucial. Additionally, it’s essential to educate teenagers about prescription stimulants’ intended purpose as medication and minimize their potential for misuse.

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