College students who misuse prescription stimulants are more likely to have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder or substance-use disorder, according to a recent study.
Drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall are prescribed to ADHD patients as part of treatment for the disorder, which causes patients to be easily distracted or have trouble paying attention. The drugs have also been found by many people without the disorder or a diagnosis for it, especially students, to help focus on tasks from studying to gym workouts.
Recent studies have suggested two-thirds of college students have been offered stimulants for nonmedical use and 31 percent have actually used them, as misuse of the drugs has skyrocketed during the last decade.
“Not everyone is driven to misuse prescription stimulants simply to ‘get high,'” Dr. Timothy Wilens, chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, said in a press release. “Some misusers may be pressured to use a friend’s prescription if they believe it will improve academic performance, which is not likely if combined with alcohol or other drugs. We know that untreated ADHD is associated with increased risk of alcohol- and drug-use disorders, so it is not surprising that we found high rates of co-occurring ADHD and of stimulant-use and overall substance-use disorders in those misusing stimulants.”
For the study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researchers enrolled 300 Boston-area college students, 100 of whom were classified as stimulant misusers during recruitment and 200 not classified as misusers. Students with ADHD diagnoses were included in both groups, as some did not misuse their prescribed drugs.
Researchers conducted extensive interviews validated for the diagnosis of neuropsychiatric disorders with all the students.
“Someone may report on a survey that they misused stimulants on ‘a handful of occasions’ and have never been diagnosed with a substance-use disorder. But during the intensive interview process it may be found that they mixed prescription stimulants with alcohol and that they had problematic interactions with others that led to legal action. While that misuser may deny having a stimulant-use disorder, when systematically queried, it may be found that he or she met or approached the criteria for a full disorder.”
Researchers found students were more likely to misuse the drugs if they’d either had a diagnosis or exhibited signs of the disorder. Misusers were much more likely to meet criteria for substance-abuse disorder, and 67 percent met criteria for stimulant-use disorder.
“It’s possible that pre-existing cognitive deficits may lead some individuals to develop stimulant misuse as they try to self-medicate,” Wilens said. “The extent of an actual stimulant-use disorder in those who misused stimulants at all suggests that this problem may be more prevalent and severe than previously thought.”