Prescription Stimulants: The New Drug of Choice Among Young Adults?

Conversation With A TherapistAlcohol, marijuana, prescription painkillers like OxyContin, and new synthetic drugs available almost everywhere – young adults today have a plethora of substances to choose from if they want to get high. However, when it comes to substance abuse, many young people are choosing none of the above. According to a survey released by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, the use of prescription stimulants like Adderall is not only common but considered normal among young adults.

But Adderall abuse and abuse of other similar prescription stimulants is unlike the use and abuse of any other drug by people in this age group. Rather than using these substances recreationally, young adults are taking stimulant medications in order to assist them in accomplishing their goals at work, at school, and in the community.

According to the survey:

  • About 20 percent of college students say that they have used prescription stimulant drugs without a prescription at least once in their lives.
  • Comparatively, only 15 percent of non-students reported abusing prescription stimulants.
  • Older undergraduate students and grad students were more likely to abuse these medications than college freshmen were.
  • About 60 percent of the 18-25 year olds who reported lifetime use of prescription stimulants said they abused Adderall. Twenty percent said they abused Ritalin, and 14 percent said they abused Vyvanse.

A Different Kind of Drug Abuse


The stereotypical drug abuser under the age of 25 is experimenting with alcohol and marijuana, synthetic drugs, or street drugs in an attempt to get high. If they abuse prescription drugs, it’s usually painkillers like Percocet or oxycodone. They may or may not be doing well in school or holding down a job. Most are focused on their social scene and give little thought to the future or possible repercussions of their drug use and abuse.

Not so with the young adults abusing prescription stimulants. These young people are often driven and focused, trying to manage heavy course loads or 60- to 80-hour workweeks in the professional world. To the objective viewer, it may be difficult to guess that abuse of any drug is a problem – until addiction begins to take hold.

Trying to Keep Up
Stimulant Addiction

Why are college students – even high school students, in some cases – and those new to the workforce abusing a prescription drug? There is a great deal of pressure placed upon young people today. There is heavy competition to get into college and to land even the most entry-level jobs. Having a college degree is no longer enough to be competitive to get into one’s field of choice. Many feel that they have to go above and beyond, secure double degrees and/or internships, do volunteer work, and be the best at everything they do in order to even be considered for a position.

They’re not necessarily wrong. But it’s often more than any one person can handle without assistance. Many use Adderall and other stimulant drugs in order to overcome the need for sleep, to better focus and make good use of their time, and to accomplish all that they need to do as efficiently as possible – and still have a social life on the side.

Unfortunately, the use of drugs even for this seemingly honest and noble purpose can backfire. Once they start out at a high level of performance, it becomes expected, driving many young people to continue taking the drugs. Many start out using it once in a while during high school and then more often during college. When they finally get the job they’re striving for, they feel that they have to take it all the time in order to stay on top and get noticed for the next promotion.

Too often, regular or binge use of the drug can lead to a dependence upon the pills. Many feel incapable of managing their responsibilities without using it. Others begin to prioritize use of the drug over their original purpose for taking it. Mental health and personality changes begin to take place (e.g., erratic behavior, delusional thinking, and paranoia), and users are no longer able to manage the responsibilities that they have committed themselves to.

According to a new study:

  • Fifty percent of young adults who abuse prescription stimulants do so in order to improve their academic.
  • Forty-one percent use them to stay awake.
  • Twenty-four percent report using the pills to improve their performance at a job.

Though many view the taking of stimulant prescription drugs for the purposes of improving work performance as normal, others view it as a morally offensive. They see it as skewing the playing field and making it impossible for those who don’t use this version of “performance-enhancing” drugs to fare well when competing in the workforce.

No matter what you’re opinion on this aspect of stimulant drug use, it is clear that the young people who feel incapable of managing their responsibilities any other way are taking great risks with their health and well-being. The risk of stimulant addiction is high when use of the drugs becomes a regular practice, and the result can be the same as any other addiction despite the difference in intention. Loss of everything valuable in one’s life – positive social relationships, physical health, mental balance, reputation, and career standing – are all real risks for those who take these drugs.

Though many who use these drugs view themselves as leaders in their social groups, enjoy being the center of attention, and often have more active social lives in addition to highly competitive work or school lives, they can quickly lose everything if dependence upon prescription stimulants take over.

New Coping Skills

Many believe that the answer to the problem is presenting young adults with better coping skills for managing their schedules and responsibilities. Others think that a total shift in priorities and perspective is necessary on college campuses and in the workforce. In either case, certainly access to these medications is part of the issue as well. Too often, kids present with false symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the disorder for which these medications are commonly prescribed, in order to increase their access to the pills.

Steve Pasierb, President and CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. “These new data confirm that college students are misusing and abusing Rx stimulants in a misguided effort to manage their lives because they are burning the candle at both ends – feeling the need to perform better and achieve their academic and social goals. This fact presents an opportunity for parents and health care professionals to play a pivotal role in helping students better manage their time and the commitments that are stressing them out. And most importantly, they can and should counsel young people who have been legitimately prescribed medication for ADHD to not compromise their own health by sharing or selling those medications.”

Many colleges and universities are working to curb the diagnosis of new ADHD cases among their students or requiring that parents be informed when a student seeks treatment for the disorder.

Others are striving to give the education necessary to help students make better choices in terms of how they achieve their success. Often, it’s a matter of education. Many who abuse the drugs simply don’t see them as a danger; they see them as a normal part of life.

Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH, is the Dean of the Global Institute of Public Health at New York University. She says: “In the US alone, there are over 6 million youth, ages 4 to 17, diagnosed with ADHD who are now growing up with both the benefits – and in some cases, risks – associated with the increasingly prescribed medications intended to treat the disorder of ADHD. As these young people enter college and the workforce, they become unwitting ambassadors for the perception that these medications carry low risk and real benefits. In turn, the abuse of these drugs by a growing number of young people charts a dangerous course for students and young adults that must be countered by the public health community. If we fail to act, social norms around the practice become further normalized and even more challenging to reverse.”