For decades, teenagers have abused drugs like marijuana, alcohol, cocaine or heroin. More recently, though, there has been a new trend of abusing stimulant prescription medication for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. They are easy to access and simple to ingest and provide a quick high.

Among high school seniors surveyed in 2007, prescription stimulants ranked third among illegal drugs used. In the class of drugs called “amphetamines,” these include drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, Dexedrine, Metadate and Vyvanse. At “skittles parties,” teens mix their pills together in a big pile and then each take some, not knowing what pills they are taking. Since these pills are commonly prescribed by doctors to teens every day, many young people carry the illusion that they are harmless. The truth is that this type of pill abuse is addictive and deadly.

ADHD is a behavioral disorder characterized by inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity that has seen a sharp rise among children and teens. Approximately 8 percent of children ages 4-17 have been diagnosed with this disorder in the U.S. A highly effective treatment for ADHD is the use of stimulant medications. These medications help to improve focus and reduce impulsivity and hyperactivity by increasing certain brain chemicals, such as dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that is associated with things like pleasure, movement and attention.

When taken in the frequency and dosages prescribed, stimulants are not considered to be addictive; however, they can certainly become addictive when abused. As always, it is important for parents and others working with teens to know the facts about these drugs. Here are the facts: Stimulant medications, when taken without a doctor’s oversight, are addictive. Stimulants work by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain. In addition to helping with attention, dopamine is a chemical in the brain that helps us feel good. Taking stimulants such as ADHD medication causes a rapid increase in the amount of dopamine in the brain and creates a temporary euphoric effect. This pleasurable feeling or “high,” along with the withdrawal symptoms associated with chronic use, make users prone to addiction. There are serious health risks, including risk of death. Stimulants are an “upper” and in addition to enhancing mood, they also increase blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature. These types of effects can have serious impacts on the cardiovascular system, including risk of stroke at high doses. Because stimulants can decrease appetite and sleep, they can result in malnutrition and exhaustion as the drugs wear off. Psychologically, stimulants can create feelings of paranoia or contribute to feelings and expressions of hostility or aggression. Just because doctors prescribe them does not mean they are “safe” for everyone. Teens, and maybe even parents, may think that prescription drugs do not have the potential to be harmful since doctors regularly prescribe them to adults, teens and even children. Unfortunately, this can create a false sense of security that can prove deadly. When doctors prescribe these medications, they know the proper dosages, how they interact with other classes of medications and how they may exacerbate any existing medical or psychological conditions, and they advise of potential side effects. Without this information, mistakes like combining two different types of drugs can be lethal. It is especially risky for teens to take pills in the “skittle party” scene, where they do not know what types and dosages of drugs they are consuming. Being addicted to any type of drug can have incredibly damaging effects on one’s entire life.

What parents can do: • Be actively involved in your teen’s life, knowing who they are hanging out with and where they are going. If your teen is hanging out in his friends’ homes, become familiar with their parents and stay in contact with them. Whenever possible, encourage your teen to invite his friends to your home so that you can get to know them and be the parent who is supervising. • Notice differences in your teen, such as increased energy and lack of appetite or sleep. Signs like this or paranoia, irritability or increased hostility can be signs of stimulant drug abuse. • If you hear your teen referring to slang that you don’t recognize, do not assume it is something harmless. Ask around or go online to see what it might refer to if you don’t feel you are getting honest answers from your teen. Some common slang terms for these types of drugs include: “skittles,” “addies,” “amps,” “ritz,” “pep pills,” “candy” or “dex.” • If you have found your teen with a pill that she is not prescribed, take it seriously. Find out what it is and where she got it. • Talk with your teen about the risks of prescription stimulant abuse. Parents may talk to their teens about saying “no” to alcohol or marijuana, but teens may be less prepared for being offered a pill. Be proactive, and talk with him about the potential harmful effects now. Compass Rose Academy can help parents recognize the signs of stimulant abuse and help create positive strategies or recovery. To learn more, visit us at  today.

Resources: Pliszka, S. (2007). Practice Parameter for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,46(7), 894-921.