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College Students Using Ritalin® to Study, Get High


February 1998

Ritalin®, an amphetamine drug prescribed for attention deficit disorder (ADD), is being used by college students to help them study -- or simply to get high (Jeff Heinrich, "Students Popping Ritalin To Stay Alert," Montreal Gazette, January 22, 1998, p. A1; Richard Chacón, "On campus, Ritalin getting attention as a `good buzz,'" Boston Globe, February 12, 1998, p. A1; "Ritalin is getting attention on campus as a `good buzz,'" Virginian-Pilot, February 15, 1998, p. A26).

"The problem with Ritalin is that anybody who takes it is going to concentrate better - it's like a strong cup of coffee; it has this focusing effect on almost everyone,'' said Dr. Norman Hoffman, director of mental health services for students at McGill University in Montreal. "Kids used to take speed [methedrine, dexedrine] 20 years ago, or caffeine pills; now they're taking Ritalin," Hoffman told the Montreal Gazette. "It's only over the last two years that we've been hearing about this,'' he said. "Our concern is the possible health risk -- depression, psychosis -- associated with [improperly] taking Ritalin."

Ritalin® (methylphenidate) has been around since the 1960s, and is usually prescribed to children and adolescents to treat ADD, which is characterized by hyperactivity and trouble concentrating. Prescribed to be taken two or three times a day, the drug mildly stimulates the central nervous system. Ritalin® comes in tablets of dosages between 5 and 20 milligrams. Some crush the tablets and snort the powder. Students report that the "buzz" they get from the drug helps them stay awake while they study. After the "buzz" wears off, students report side effects of melancholy, lethargy, dry mouth, loss of appetite and inability to sleep. Some students, who had ADD as adolescents, still have an old prescription for Ritalin®. Other students obtain it illegally from friends or others who sell it for $5 to $10 a pill. Other students get a prescription after starting college, claiming that they suffer from ADD or nervousness.

In Quebec prescriptions of Ritalin®, which is also sold under the brand name PMS-Methylphenidate®, grew from 47,000 in 1992 to 179,000 last year, according to a study by the Montreal-based drug research firm IMS Canada. More than 1 in 30 Americans between the ages 5 and 19 have a prescription for Ritalin®, according to the DEA. Annual production of the drug has increased from 2,000 kilograms a decade ago to 12,000 kilograms in 1997.

University physicians and counselors say ADD has been mistakenly diagnosed in thousands of students. In some cases, students are simply having trouble coping with the isolation from their families and the lack of structure in student life. Some stressed students receive a quick consultation in a general practitioner's office where they walk out with a prescription for Ritalin®. "It's so overprescribed that it's more available to abuse," said William DeJong, executive director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse.

Hoffman at McGill's mental-health clinic said, "We see lots of kids with concentration problems, and the vast majority of time it's due to an emotional problem of one sort or another - stress, depression, anxiety." He added, "A small per cent of the time it's due to what seems to be a true attention-deficit disorder. ... Unfortunately, it's very easy to look past the more complex problem and just prescribe a pill."

Dr. Norman Hoffman, McGill University - 3637 Peel, Powell Student Services, Room 112, Montreal, Quebec H3A 1X1, CANADA, Tel: (514) 398-6019, Fax: (514) 398-3857.

William DeJong, Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse - Educational Development Center, Inc., for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, 55 Chapel Hill St., Newton, MA 02158-1060, Tel: (800) 676-1730, Fax: (617) 928-1537.