How Doctors Think About ADHD Medication Abuse

By Karen Weintraub
Guest Contributor

Like any other medication, drugs used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can be abused.

A story in last Sunday’s New York Times showed the potentially tragic consequences of such abuse, and revealed some of the systemic factors that enabled it.

There is no blood test to diagnose ADHD – no biological marker that says “yes” you have the condition or “no” you don’t. Accurate diagnosis relies on the sophistication and experience of the doctor and the honesty of the patient.

(Adam Crowe/flickr)

(Adam Crowe/flickr)

The New York Times piece suggested that one or both of these factors broke down in the case of Richard Fee, a college graduate who committed suicide at age 24, two weeks after his last prescription for the stimulant Adderall expired.

Drugs like Adderall are far more available now than they used to be, because awareness of ADHD and prescriptions have increased markedly over the last decade, particularly among adults.

Most people tend to see ADHD as a condition of childhood. Research suggests that 5-10 percent of children meet the criteria for ADHD and are impaired by it, while roughly 4 percent of adults do.

Although there has long been discussion about whether ADHD medications are overused in children, this story raised concerns about the drugs in early adulthood, when drug abuse is most common. “We’ve got a lot more drugs out there in that age population,” said Dr. Glen Elliott, chief psychiatrist and medical director at the Children’s Health Council in Palo Alto. “The need to be more alert to possible diversion and misuse and abuse in this population has certainly increased.”

In light of the story, I called Elliott and several other ADHD specialists this week, including two with whom I just finished writing a book about adult ADHD. These are their thoughts about The New York Times story and ADHD medications in general:

1. Abuse is not a problem among young children who take ADHD medications. Their parents or school nurse generally dole out the pills and keep track of them. (Overdiagnosis may be a bigger issue for this population, but that’s another story.) The biggest potential for abuse at this age is parents or older siblings taking the pills for themselves, which data suggests happens in about 10 percent of households, said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics at the Steven & Alexandra Children’s Medical Center of New York.

For children who are significantly helped by medication – better able to focus, to pay attention, to learn in school – the benefits of far outweigh the risks, Adesman and the other doctors said. “When this [medication] works, it should be dramatically effective and not cause problems that get in your way,” said Steven G. Dickstein, a pediatric psychopharmacologist with the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan. “If it does not cause a difference or causes dramatic side effects, that’s not the right treatment for your child.”

Over his decade of practice, mainly with school-age children, Dickstein said he’s seen many young people with ADHD improve markedly with medication. He said he’s never had a situation like the one described in the Times piece.

For teens with ADHD, the bigger risk may be avoiding medication. Research has shown that teens with untreated ADHD are more likely to develop substance abuse problems than teens who are medicated for their condition, Adesman said.

In high school and, especially college, the person with ADHD becomes responsible for their own prescriptions and has much less parental oversight, if any. That’s when abuse tends to kick in, the specialists said.

Having ADHD puts people at higher risk of all kinds of addictions, “because the disorder itself is characterized by impulsivity and poor recognition of consequences,” Ruth Hughes, CEO of the national advocacy group Children and Adults with ADHD (CHADD) wrote in a blog post this week. “We must help anyone with ADHD be forewarned that there is a higher risk of substance abuse and we must be vigilant for early warning signs.”

Those signs might include “doctor shopping,” as The Times described Fee doing, going from one doctor to another, looking for medications. Sudden requests to increase dosage is another sign, the specialists said.

In one survey of 91 college students taking ADHD medications, Adesman said, about 10 percent of the students said they misused their medications – often by drinking alcohol while taking the drug – and about the same percent admitted to “diverting” their prescription to others. “To my knowledge, this is not a kid who’s going out and becoming a pusher, it really is people asking” for a pill or two as a favor, Elliott said, and the kid with ADHD hands it over to be nice or make friends. It’s not clear how often this is happening, Elliott said.

Dr. Craig Surman, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the scientific coordinator of the adult ADHD research program at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells his college-age patients not to let friends know about their prescriptions – so there’s no chance they’ll be pressured into giving pills away.

Another solution, Elliott said, could be to start patients like Fee – who was not diagnosed with ADHD until young adulthood – on non-stimulant ADHD medication. Doctors often prescribe stimulant medications first, because they have been shown to start working immediately and help 65-70 percent of people with ADHD. Non-stimulants, which don’t carry the addiction risk, are effective about 40 percent of the time, and can take days or weeks to make a difference. The antidepressant Wellbutrin has also been shown effective for some people with ADHD, without the addiction risk, he said. In this vulnerable young-adult population, fear of addiction should probably outweigh the need for a quicker fix, Elliott said.

Drug companies have also tried to make their products safer by shifting to longer-acting medications – avoiding the up and down cycles and making it harder for people with ADHD to skip a pill. The companies have also created compounds that are harder to snort, which abusers do to get a faster high, Elliott said.

2. There are other ways to treat ADHD besides medications, though there is far less research on these alternatives.

Stimulants are the fastest, most effective therapy, with the best results, particularly in children, research shows. All patients on ADHD medication should be under close supervision of a doctor, the specialists agreed.

But medications don’t “solve” ADHD, and other approaches are crucial, too. “Pills don’t teach skills,” said Dr. Timothy Bilkey, a Canadian adult psychiatrist in private practice. The medications can help someone focus, but don’t tell them what to focus on – so they might do a great job on something that’s totally irrelevant or unimportant.

Surman said it’s also crucial for adults with ADHD to exercise regularly, get enough sleep and eat well – habits that are often difficult for people with ADHD to keep. No one can function well if they’ve stayed up half the night playing video games.

Cognitive behavioral therapy – a type of talk therapy that redirects people and helps them get out of their own way – can be an extremely effective treatment for ADHD when paired with medication, Surman and his Mass. General colleagues have shown.

Surman is also researching neutraceuticals – versions of natural food – that might help with ADHD.

Adesman said there’s already research to suggest that fish oil supplements can have some modest benefit for people with ADHD.

3. The Times story highlighted problems with drug abuse, these ADHD experts said, not with ADHD treatment. (It wasn’t clear in the article whether Fee actually had ADHD, or merely said he did in order to get medication.)

Deciding when trouble with focusing becomes bad enough to require medication is subjective, Adesman said. That makes it possible for patients to lie to their doctors or twist the truth, if their real goal is to obtain medication. “It’s an imperfect process,” he said. “Even the most ardent defenders of ADHD have to acknowledge that it can be challenging when trying to address people in this gray zone where problems may be minimal and moderate rather than severe.”

Doctors aren’t always good at detecting people likely to abuse or misuse ADHD drugs – but that doesn’t mean there’s a problem with ADHD or the diagnosis, the specialists said.

ADHD often comes along with other problems, like learning disabilities, depression or substance abuse – and it can be tricky to discern whether the patient’s primary problem is ADHD or something else.

They all said that an accurate diagnosis of ADHD requires more than one visit and an interview with a parent, spouse or other long-time friend, to confirm that the person’s challenges are long-standing and affect more than just their temporary homework load or social life. “The diagnosis of Adult ADHD is based on a lifelong history of distractibility, forgetfulness, procrastination, poor time management, disorganization and underachievement in multiple realms,” Bilkey said.

4. Lots of young people take stimulant medications looking for an “edge” on tests and homework.

Stimulants will definitely keep people up longer – which might help on tomorrow’s test, or getting that paper in on time. But they don’t work substantially better than coffee at improving focus, Elliott said. “What the evidence suggests is that people have more confidence – that they think it’s working,” he said. “There’s very little evidence that it actually enhances performance in kids who don’t have ADHD.”

At high doses over extended periods, he said, stimulants can cause psychotic breakdowns, like the one Fee suffered. And, though teenagers and young adults may believe they can handle stimulant medications, “if you don’t need the drug [to treat ADHD], you’re taking it for the wrong reasons,” Surman said. Doing that, puts someone at risk for the kind of addiction that Fee apparently suffered. “You’re taking matters into your own hands. These drugs aren’t meant to be managed in your own hands.

(More information on stimulant abuse is available here.)

Karen Weintraub, a health and science journalist based in Cambridge, helped doctors Surman and Bilkey write a book, “Fast Minds: How to Thrive If You Have ADHD (Or Think You Might),” which was published this week.

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  • matrionix

    i am 16 and have been on meds since i was 5 when i was diagnosed with adhd and bipolar and now i have huge medical issues i have high blood pressure 195 over 90 and have a kidney problem and heart problems see i was prescribed medication at a young age and the doctor didnt even think that my body wasnt fully developed or my brain now since they prescribed them before my body or brain developed im all messed up now i can trulely say adhd and bipolor meds destroyed my body

  • Gina Pera

    An interesting piece, but I must take issue with one point, in particular:

    But medications don’t “solve” ADHD, and other approaches are crucial,
    too. “Pills don’t teach skills,” said Dr. Timothy Bilkey, a Canadian
    adult psychiatrist in private practice. The medications can help someone
    focus, but don’t tell them what to focus on – so they might do a great
    job on something that’s totally irrelevant or unimportant.


    Yes, of course, supportive strategies are always helpful, especially to the late-diagnosis adult who has years of living with untreated ADHD to develop some bad habits and poor coping strategies. But the coterie of therapeutic and coaching services often pushed at the adult ADHD population is often unnecessary, and more reflective of poor prescribing than any inherent need.

    The stimulant medication increases “salience” — that is, it helps you to know which is the more important thing to be paying attention to right now. No one (with ADHD or not) always knows the right thing to focus upon. These are lifelong skills and qualities we must hone.

  • Gwen Haggis

    In typical ADHD, children are approximately 30% behind their peers developmentally.
    We also have to keep in mind that the brain isn’t fully developed until almost 30 years old. Doctors need to carefully assess what is developmentally normal and what is ADHD. Symptoms must be present across settings in order for the diagnosis to be made (See the DSM-IV).

    Unfortunately, not much is taught in medical schools and psychology about adult ADHD. If the diagnostician is a good one, they take a detailed history including school, work, functional, social, emotional and behavioral information (childhood to present). A through family history helps since ADHD is highly heritable. A physical…ruling out physical issues with a similar presentation is also necessary. Some testing such as EEGs are done, but not usually. Insurance companies are often unwilling to pay for services. Rating scales by the patient, teachers or spouse/partner are also included. Medications should be titrated slowly and doctors visits should occur frequently until the appropriate dose of medication is calculated. Sometimes this takes awhile or a few trials if one medication doesn’t work or if a comorbid condition such as anxiety or depression is present.

    Because young adults are entering college and this is a transition year, perhaps colleges and clinics need to be more aware that these students are at high risk for difficulties and make appropriate resources available to them. ADHD coaching is a great example.

    It would be interesting to see what time the substance abuse was occurring. Is the dependence or “abuse” occurring during times when the medication has left the system? Who can help these young adults become aware of these patterns, so that they are able to develop better coping strategies or avoid places that may increase their ADHD symptoms. Also, we need to investigate hormonal fluctuations and how this impacts ADHD symptoms in young adults, particularly women. Much more research is needed.

  • Karen Weintraub

    Medications may not offer protection against drug abuse for teens with ADHD after all, new study suggests:

  • Lawrence

    My own doctor actually kept asking these questions to see, ( hoping?) if I was depressed or had anxiety.

    Drs work for the drug compaines. BEWARE!

  • Lawrence

    CHILDREN are indeed overprescribed and mostly NEEDLESS. It is a money machine for drug companies. They have also raided and depleted the Medicare in FL and other states. It’s so rampant that ABC news did a segment on how children in the foster care system are on 6 or 7 drugs at one time.

    NO MORE DRUGS. For the majority it’s a FAKE DIAGNOSIS

  • Vires refotae

    I agree with the author, but feel that there needs to be much more research with tailored neurofeedback games for the kids. We also need to focus on the growing interface industry and walk hand in hand with technology.

  • romacox

    Even in young children ADHD is misdiagnosed. Active children and hands on learners are often diagnosed with ADHD. It is not the child’s problem, it is the school system’s method of teaching that forces teachers to use a one size fits all approach. It is more profitable to treat symptoms than solve the problem.

    • Lawrence

      SO ture. Funny you don’t see this aspect in her article and probably won’t in her book either.

      • Karen Weintraub

        Hi. The book is about adult ADHD, so you’re right, we don’t touch on over-diagnosis in children.
        There’s no question that some children who don’t have ADHD are diagnosed with the condition and medicated for it unnecessarily. That shouldn’t happen, but it does, in part because the diagnosis is subjective, not based on a blood test or other biological measure. Some day maybe we’ll have one, but it’s unlikely to come soon.
        Yes, some kids get diagnosed because they are fidgety in school. If the child is not equally fidgety at home, then the problem is probably the school not the child. It’s a tragic reality that too many kids get a mediocre education, and medicating a child as a response to a poor eduction is a double tragedy.

        • Gina Pera

          Karen, no, that is just not true: “If the child is not equally fidgety at home, then the problem is probably the school not the child.”

          There are many differences between the school and home environments, and all manner of reason why a child with ADHD might behave differently in each environment. ADHD is a contextual disorder.

          Moreover, it is also true that ADHD is UNDERdiagnosed, largely due to ignorance or lack of access.

          Many conditions are subjective and require careful clinical expertise. We don’t need to wait around for a blood test or other biological measure to accurately evaluate for ADHD. Misdiagnosis happens because some clinicians are lazy and careless. Period.

    • Anonymous

      This comment seems omnipresent in ANY story on ADHD, and it’s been debunked many times. Please educate yourself before repeating nonsense. The Scientologists have an army of people to write comments such as this.

  • Shava Nerad

    There is a proper test for stimulant therapy appropriateness for ADD, but the APA doesn’t want to adopt it – this probably has more to do with DSM politics than science and would make a great investigative journalism piece. The reason therapies such as Adderall and beta neurofeedback work for ADD is that a majority of people diagnosed (it used to be about 80%) show an abnormal EEG profile. A neurotypical EEG is dominantly beta waves – showing alert waking analytic attention, the ability to take problems into smaller sections. A person with ADD will more typically show an EEG dominated by theta waves, which most people only experience strongly in dream sleep. Creative, daydreamy, unfocused. These kids (and the adults they grow into) are nearly literally dream-walking, sleep-walking. A normal person can get this way by skipping a night or two of sleep, completely.

    So people with ADD twitch and fidget like you might after pulling an all nighter, trying to keep yourself aroused and awake and keeping from drifting off. This is why stimulant therapy “calms them down” which puzzles many people – it actually wakes them up enough to be self-regulating.

    If the APA tested for high theta/low beta as a criterion in the DSM they would go a long way to eliminate scam medication abuse. But I honestly think they don’t like the notion of admitting that with a non-talking-therapy diagnostic, they’ve been misdiagnosing and medicating 20% or more of their patients, mostly children.

    This is where cog sci and psychiatry end up spitting at each other like cats across the room, I’m afraid. What they are doing is unscientific and they don’t feel they have the latitude of action. Insane.

  • Sara

    Thank you, CommonHealth and Karen Weintraub, for this really smart, helpful piece about ADHD and medication. And congratulations, Karen, on your latest book. Where can we buy it?