The other drug problem


The abuse of heroin and other opiates has generated headline news stories in the past year. Words such as epidemic have been used, and there is no doubt that the problem is big and getting bigger.

But there is another drug that is being abused and the numbers may indicate that, in many places, opiates are taking a back seat to the abuse of this other drug. That drug's brand name is Adderall and its generic name is amphetamine, dextroamphetamine mixed salts. It is a prescription drug used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Amphetamine abuse is nothing new, but the diagnosis of ADHD has become popular among those who label such disorders. There are millions of children as well as adults who have been diagnosed with ADHD. It is not entirely clear whether or not this disease is a new epidemic or a set of symptoms that has existed for a long time that were not considered a disease.

Here are some statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relating to ADHD: Children 3-17 years of age ever diagnosed with ADHD is 5.9 million, percent of children 3-17 years of age ever diagnosed with ADHD is 9.5 percent; percent of boys 3-17 years of age ever diagnosed with ADHD is 13.5 percent, percent of girls 3-17 years of age ever diagnosed with ADHD is 5.4 percent.

It's also worth noting that Adderall and other similar drugs are abused in high numbers by college students, especially around exam time. In a society that has trouble focusing on the task at hand, Adderall offers the perfect solution. It provides laser-type focus and helps people get the job done.

Of course, abuse has its cost. Adderall and other stimulants have the potential to cause dangerous, even fatal, cardiovascular events and when used in growing brains their effects can have lifelong consequences. Couple that with the fact that most of the young people who abuse the drug believe they are immortal and you have a prescription for disaster.

Not too long ago a survey in Windham County in Vermont indicated that Adderall was the most abused drug. It was a surprise to many of us who work in health care, but it may be an indication of a bigger underlying problem.

Defining and describing that problem may not be simple, but one of the primary factors contributing to the abuse of any drug is the fact that our society makes people believe that a pill will solve complex problems.

We have reached the point of being nearly brainwashed by advertising that tells us to ask our doctor if this pill or that pill is right for us. These same ads show us how much better life can be if we only take a pill. This kind of mind control has crept in over the years and it will take a long time to reverse the damage.

It is worth noting that the United States and New Zealand are the only countries that allow direct to consumer advertising of prescription drugs. If we were to put a ban in place it might be possible to reprogram a few million brains in a decade or so.

Like any prescription drug, Adderall has its good side. It has helped millions of children and adults improve their lives. Adderall and similar drugs work in a somewhat counter-intuitive way. People who are hyperactive are given a drug that makes people without ADHD more energetic and hyper-vigilant but people who have symptoms of ADHD become calmer and exhibit more controlled behavior.

We live in a society that pushes all of us to do more and more just to get by. There is tremendous pressure on people to perform at high levels and, when they cannot live up to unrealistic expectations, they experience shame and failure. If they can take a pill to make their lives "better" then they can easily fall into a trap that may seem like a cure.

They find, in a short time, that things are much worse because they have become dependent on a drug that begins to damage their mind and their body. The solution is bigger than one person and until our society takes responsibility for complicity in the drug abuse epidemic not much will change.

While there will always be drug abuse and people with addictive personalities, much of the pressure pushing people in the direction of the drug cure-all has more to do with social inequality in housing, income and a host of other social determinants of health. Until we deal with those issues head on we will never put much of a dent in the drug abuse epidemic.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at


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