Prescription drugs used unprescribed?

Psychology department head says effects of ADHD treatment drugs like Adderall aren’t soley beneficial

Richard Beninger
Image by: Justin Tang
Richard Beninger

Drugs like Aderrall and Ritalin are manufactured to help people with Attention Deficit disorders.

But according to students and experts, these drugs aren’t used exclusively by prescription holders.

An Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey reported non-medical use of pharmaceutical drugs was the third largest category among commonly used recreational drugs in 2009. The category includes Opioid pain relievers, OxyContin, ADHD drugs, stimulants, tranquilizers and sedatives.

Medications like Ritalin (Methylphenidate), Adderall, Dexedrine and Concerta are perscribed to individuals with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Ritalin is the only prescription drug among the group not classified as an amphetamine, a substance also found in ecstasy.

Richard Beninger, head of Queen’s Psychology department, said the prescription drugs don’t only affect people with ADD and ADHD.

“In non-diagnosed people using this drug, it gives something of a high,” Beninger said.

He said there are risks involved with undiagnosed students who choose to use amphetamine-based drugs.

“People who abuse drugs with amphetamine risk developing symptoms like those seen in Schizophrenia,” Beninger said, adding that addiction to these drugs is also an associated risk.

“It is dangerous, and they are particularly dangerous to people who have a pre-disposition to schizophrenia already.” Beninger said the recreational use of prescription drugs is nothing new.

“This is not new, it’s an old problem that has come around again,” he said. “Alcohol and amphetamines both activate the dopamine system, you might get an escalated effect by having the two together.” Jim Brien, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Queen’s School of Medicine spoke to the Journal about varied reactions to medication of this order.

“The dose-response relationship is fundamental,” Brien said. “An effective dose for one person may not be the same in another.”

He said that while some people may find a positive change after taking such prescriptions, others could experience adverse reactions or simply not respond at all.

“Adderall is a trade name for a central nervous system stimulant drug,” he said. “It is essential that those who choose to take these drugs fully appreciate the beneficial and adverse reactions.

“It is a phenomenon of biological variability. If they do not have that particular intellectual or developmental disorder it may or may not have an effect on them.”

Brien said that the reaction to such medication is dependent on the task at hand; be it studying for an exam, doing homework or preparing for physical activity.

He said that there is a definitive process by which a student would have to comply to be prescribed stimulant medication.

“To get these agents, a diagnosis needs to be made by a clinician to source the drug. The person has to present as having the disorder”, he said.

The Canadian ADHD Resource Alliance (CADDRA) recommends a five-step process in diagnosing ADHD in adolescents, beginning with the patient consulting a primary care physician. In this first visit, the patient often expresses a concern about hyperactivity, inattentive behaviour or impulse control issues—symptoms typical of ADHD.

The second consultation will have physicians review the patient’s medical history and conduct a short physical exam; this is to ensure that the symptoms exhibited are not a result of other medical issues. Thirdly, the physician will conduct interviews to assess the severity of symptoms which will lead them to discuss treatment recommendations.

Around 16,500 Ontario high school students reported using prescription ADHD drugs for non-medical reasons last year, according to an Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey.

The study surveyed 9,112 Ontario students between grades seven and 12, concluding about two per cent of students used drugs like Adderall, Dexedrine and Concerta in 2009.

Particularly during the increased workload characteristic of mid-term and exam season, students are looking to improve productivity.

Queen’s Learning Strategies Development program coordinator, Linda Williams said the Queen’s Learning Commons offer alternative ways for students to increase focus and concentration.

“Focus and concentration are brain-based activities,” Williams told the Journal in an e-mail. “Brains need more sleep during periods of active learning and memorizing.”

Williams also suggested students create an environment isolated from technology for studying, including disabling internet connections and turning cellphones to silent.

“Multi-tasking while trying to study is a myth,” she said.

Alex Ostojic, Sci ’13, was diagnosed with ADD at age 17. He said after beginning to take Adderall XR there was a measurable rise in his marks.

“[Adderall] definitely helps me to sit down and work straight and know that I’m unable to be distracted,” he said, adding that he’s also given the extended release stimulant to friends.

“I’ve definitely been asked and have given it to a few of my friends in high school and first year. I recommended one 20 mg pill for a day,” he said.

Distributing the pills can be a lucrative business, he said.

“I’ve accepted five dollars a pill,”Ostojic said. “I pay a dispensing fee to the pharmacy but the rest of the prescription is covered by health care benefits.” He said friends that knew he had Adderall didn’t hestitate to ask him for some.

Although he continues to use Adderall, Ostojic said he’s experienced some common side effects.

“The worst side effect is suppressed appetite and it can become a problem when you realize you haven’t eaten all day,” he said.

When it comes to non-prescription use, he said it’s up to the individual to understand risks.

“I think it’s their responsibility to deal with the adverse reactions,” he said. “Nobody’s ever come to me saying that they’ve had a bad reaction”.

Ostojic said he won’t be selling it during this school year.

“You realize it isn’t sustainable,” he said. “I kind of tried to stop selling it because I don’t have enough for myself.”

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