What’s with America’s Adderall Problem?


Kate Harveston

Kate Harveston is originally from Williamsport, PA and holds a bachelor's degree in English. She enjoys writing about health and social justice issues. When she isn't writing, she can usually be found curled up reading dystopian fiction or hiking and searching for inspiration. If you like her writing, follow her blog, So Well, So Woman.

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14 Responses

  1. Avatar dragonfrog

    Many of the rehabilitation center representatives you can talk to will tell you there’s little difference between a “lower-class” meth addict scrambling for a fix, and an employed, working-class American who abuses Adderall to get through their workaday life. The difference, predictably, comes down to stigma — we have a caricature of the “typical meth user” thanks to the media’s portrayal of them.

    But there is no “standard Adderall abuser,” so we don’t know the first thing about how to talk about it. Yet, the effects on the body and mind are terribly similar between the two. America has a long history of failing drug addicts. What happens when drug addicts can look like anybody?

    What happens, I think, is that maybe we finally start to get somewhere.

    We accept that sufferers from anemia, depression, cancer, astigmatism, schizophrenia, or multiple sclerosis, can look like anybody. And since we don’t have much in the way of stereotypes about people suffering those diseases, we focus mostly on treating them.

    But we have aallll kinds of stereotypes about what people who suffer from addiction look like, which all seem to lead into “and therefore we should use ineffective treatment methods, or even fail to treat them at all.”

    Now we just need to extend this to people who suffer from every other kind of addiction, not just those addicted to pharmaceutically prepared racemic amphetamine drugs.Report

  2. Avatar Richard Hershberger

    There always has been a strong cultural component to which drugs are respectable and which are stigmatized, and any given drug can shift from one category to another. We are seeing this happen right now with marijuana. Prohibition was a century-long attempt to remove alcohol from the respectable category. As for amphetamines, they entered cultural consciousness after World War II. They were dirty drugs used by low-lifes. They were pep pills that helped our boys defeat the Nazis. This is why bowls of greenies in baseball clubhouses were uncontroversial, even after they became an open secret. Compare this with steroids, which were used by Soviet bloc nations to win Olympics. Nicotine was on the way out from respectability until the advent of vaping. Now my modestly sized town has about a dozen vape shops. And hey: they are filling retail space that might otherwise go vacant. So nicotine seems to be making a comeback.Report

  3. Avatar dragonfrog

    Worth noting that the difference in effect between amphetamines and methamphetamines is fairly small, as I understand it.

    The main thing is the ratio between heart rate acceleration and other physiological symptoms, versus subjective experience of stimulation and alertness. Methamphetamine has less physiological symptoms for the same subjective experience. Which is why Desoxyn (brand-name methamphetamine) is sometimes prescribed for patients who experience racing heart rates with Adderall (brand-name amphetamine).

    The biggest problem with illicit methamphetamine is the “illicit” part, not the “methamphetamine” part – it’s mostly manufactured in conditions of shockingly inept chemical engineering.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw

    I never did it but I remember it being a thing for college-students to do Adderrall in order to help with all-nighters.

    Though my other very unpopular thought is that student all-nighters are largely unnecessary and are more about social performance and the much dreaded “virtue signalling” than anything else. People do all-nighters because they learn somewhere that it is what you do to be a serious and real student.* Perhaps if we taught project management in high school, this would change.

    I’m not a fan of Bryan Caplan. I think he is largely a crank who reveals in knee-jerk contarianism but one of his sharper observations is that the global/American economy rewards those who can sit for long periods of time and follow instructions very well. These are the kids who end up in universities (especially good ones) and then in plum white-collar jobs that seem to get most of the money. There is a perception (real or imagined) that boys are not good at this and I do think there is an uptick in middle-class parents getting their boy children diagnosed with ADHD so they can get them on drugs to calm them down and get them to sit. I was an atypical boy so I did not run around that much but this is just my view from afar.

    *I don’t know where people learn this. If I was ever taught this, I ignored it. I’ve had 24-hour exams before where you pick up an exam and need to turn it in 24 hours later. I’ve usually spent about 9-13 hours doing these exams. A long day basically. A huge number of my classmates at least said that they spent the whole time awake doing these exams and then went home to crash. I did well on these exams so I wonder where the feeling comes from.Report

    • All-nighters: I always understood them to be a moral failing, necessitated by procrastination. This was my understanding especially when I was doing one. Mostly, though, I figured out that sleep provided more test-taking advantage than anything I might cram in my head at the last minute. How much sleep? I was young, then. I could go on three hours two nights in a row, so I planned it with time for makeup sleep later. I later realized that this was another way of saying I could get by for a while with just one REM cycle. Nowadays I can just barely function the next day on one REM cycle, and would slit my wrists if I had to go two.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Richard Hershberger

        I think procrastination is probably a part of it. There are cultural components though. I’ve heard and read that Americans like the appearance of long hours at the desk, office, library but a lot of it is slack time. OTOH, Europeans do shorter hours but when you are at work, you are working. Much less joshing around the water cooler or going to get a cup of coffee.

        I also think there are a lot of people who prove their self-worth through having other people notice how overextended they are and asking them to sit down and take a break. They can’t do this for themselves so they go from project to project, meeting to meeting during the day and then eventually someone says “you need to sit down and eat something.”Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Richard Hershberger

        All-nighters to prepare for writing a test always seemed foolishly counterproductive.

        All-nighters to get a project done, at a cost of being a useless lump the next day, seemed at least like they accomplish the goal – you stumble in to class, hand in the work, and sit in the back trying to take something like coherent notes. I did a few of those myself. Having done so was more a sign I hadn’t managed my time well in the preceding week, not that I was a good and diligent student.Report

      • “All-nighters: I always understood them to be a moral failing, necessitated by procrastination. This was my understanding especially when I was doing one.”

        That was my understanding of all-nighters when I did them, too.* But now that I look back, I can be more sympathetic to myself and realize I was working 30+ hours a week. Of course, I suspect some people worked 40 hours and had families, too, and never did all nighters. But this idea of it being a moral failing or even the “very unpopular thought [ ] that student all-nighters are largely unnecessary and are more about social performance…” strike me as being hasty generalizations. They’re not necessarily wrong. Perhaps they’re even right most of the time. But sometimes people really do struggle through college and the reasons aren’t always simply that they didn’t learn “project management” in high school.

        *I never took adderall or anything stronger than caffeine.Report

    • fillyjonk fillyjonk in reply to Saul Degraw

      “Though my other very unpopular thought is that student all-nighters are largely unnecessary and are more about social performance and the much dreaded “virtue signalling” than anything else. People do all-nighters because they learn somewhere that it is what you do to be a serious and real student.* Perhaps if we taught project management in high school, this would change.”

      Yeah,, kinda this. I never pulled all-nighters in college, partly because I DID learn time management (both from my parents: both academics, and in high school). But I heard lots of people moaning about how many they pulled and it DID seem to me sort of a “look at me, look at how Serious I am”

      I think I got better grades with my “Okay, gonna study 20 minutes a day, starting 2 weeks before the exam, and then a couple hours the night before” than the people who pulled long all nighters and crammed. I’m sure I learned the stuff better.

      I earned pretty good grades in college. Not, like, Summa Cum Laude good, but certainly plenty good: high B average.

      I also wonder – as someone who works in academia today – how much of the “ohhhhh man another 80 hour week” you hear some academics claiming to work is an outgrowth of this. While I have put in a few 14-hour days (mainly because of meetings over and above the usual – like being on a search committee), I don’t think I’ve ever worked an 80 hour week.

      Fifty-hour weeks, yeah, sure, that’s pretty regular. But not 80, and that’s NOT something sustainable over the long term.

      I also wonder how many people in academia use stimulants stronger than caffeine to keep going. I’ve never seen out-and-out evidence of it, but I’ve known a few profs I wondered about.Report

  5. Avatar Morat20

    I can tell you one component of drug addiction: Self-medicating,

    No health insurance, no mental health insurance, or stigma against mental illness — but there are a ton of people who take illegal drugs to manage chronic conditions. Of course, when one does that you can’t be certain or dosage, potency (or even whether what you’re taking is even roughly the right drug) — so addiction is always a risk.

    I know two adults who take adderall. Both have ADHD, both spend their days calmer, less stressed, and more capable of routine socialization than without it.

    Like rising autism rates, the rising rates of adults with ADHD are mostly the result of two simple things: The realization that one does not “grow out” of ADHD (adults can generally cope with unmedicated ADHD better, because they generally have a lifetime of learning ways to work around it. And unless you have a very mild case, medication is better than any coping strategy — they tend to make you marginally function at the cost of very high stress levels) and better diagnosis.Report

  6. Avatar pillsy

    I was diagnosed with ADHD about halfway through grad school, though seriously everybody I knew was pretty sure I had it long before them. My mom had evidently (she told me upon hearing the diagnosis) fought to keep me from being “labeled” with as having ADD when I was a kid in the ’80s, and I was able to be pretty successful academically without it.

    Until it came time to start doing actual independent research, and the need to sustain focus for longer than it would take me to get through a problem set was too much for me. Self-medication with nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol were no longer cutting it either.

    I made my way through a few drugs before ending up taking Adderall and Wellbutrin.

    Wellbutrin was kind of helpful for attention, but I credit it for about 50% of my ability to quit smoking and it helps with my mood a lot. So that’s nice.

    Adderall is fucking bullshit though. I hate that fucking shit. Oh, sure, it’s nice to keep me focused and sitting still, but it leeches the joy out of everything, makes me extremely irritable about any sort of interruption, and causes me to zero in like a laser on the world’s most irrelevant details.

    Oh, and it also makes me much more anxious. Not like I’m exactly a rock without it.

    And when I hear about people seeking it out, I always wonder why anyone would do that to themselves if they don’t absolutely have to. Grouchiness and anhedonia in pill form.

    Anyway, I don’t take it anymore. I don’t really do a good job sitting still or paying attention to things for more than five minutes at a time, but if I have something to occupy my hands I’m better, and if I have something colorful going in front of my eyes that helps too.

    So yeah, I play video games through teleconferences. It probably sounds like malingering, but in reality I spend a lot more time engaged and contributing, and a lot less time saying, “Can you repeat that?” every time anybody asks me a question.Report

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