The prevalence — and cost — of mental stimulants

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By Brendan Luke 

Contributing Writer

Adderall and Ritalin have become commonly used drugs to stimulate the mind and enhance productivity.  - Photo courtesy of modup.net
Adderall and Ritalin have become commonly used drugs to stimulate the mind and enhance productivity.
– Photo courtesy of modup.net

Adderall and Ritalin, two prescription drugs frequently prescribed for patients suffering from sleep disorders and individuals diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder, belong to the amphetamines, a class of powerful compounds that include ecstasy and methamphetamine. These drugs, which directly interact with the central nervous system and induce feelings of euphoria, wakefulness and increased mental focus and control, are, supposedly, strictly regulated by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and classed as Schedule II drugs because of their ability to cause severe psychological and physical dependence. Given to children as young as seven and frequently abused by high school and college students across the nation, the drugs in this class are finding a niche among high-performing workers — Wall Street traders, dentists, MLB players and stay-at-home moms. Obtaining or distributing the drugs without a prescription is a federal crime, and so abusers rarely identify themselves, but in the academic world especially the use of drugs like Adderall and Ritalin to spur the sleep-deprived minds and bodies of our desperate pre-professional artists, teachers, physicists and medical doctors has been on the rise.

Of course, there are likely legitimate uses for these drugs, which are commonly used in cases where they may bring relief of symptoms. Dr. Robert Kugelmann, professor of psychology at the University of Dallas noted in an email that the medications seem appropriate in the college setting.

“The medications and whatever accommodations an individual student needs, that make sense, level the learning playing field, so to speak,” he said. “Since UD is a liberal arts university, we ought to take the growing awareness of ADHD/ADD [as an] occasion to reflect on the material causes of learning.  Is there a tendency to think of the life of the mind as disembodied?”

Considering these causes, the reasons behind the illegitimate use of these drugs are varied. Increased productivity, a severe reduction in feeling the need to sleep, reduced stress and feelings of euphoria are the most likely incentives for abuse. At a school like UD, where books and human thought are poured on students like water and it feels as if the weight of Western civilization is being placed on our backs for us to carry into our careers, cognitive enhancers like Adderall and Ritalin are an easy crutch.

In a 2010 study conducted by the University of Kentucky, many students were able to obtain false positives on the neuropsychological tests designed to identify ADHD patients using information obtained on the Internet prior to taking the tests. It appears that the drugs are easy to obtain under false pretenses, which betrays a major flaw in their prescription by medical doctors and psychiatrists.

The reasons students take drugs like Adderall are usually fairly obvious. The concern, however, is that an increasing percentage of the future American workforce, and even the current American workforce, is using performance-enhancing drugs that work by mechanisms similar to those in methamphetamines and ecstasy, powerful drugs that have severe ramifications on the neurochemistry of their users. By binding at dopamine sites in the brain, these drugs artificially raise levels of available neurotransmitters, which provide increased focus, arousal and euphoria, but which can lead to psychological and physical dependence, and various psychoses, or mental illnesses. Should the cost of productivity be the mental health of our students and workers?

The use of coffee, which is a commonly used drug in colleges and the workplace, is a good example of such a situation.

“I’m a terrible person before I’ve had my coffee.” “I can’t work unless I have my two cups.” “Coffee is life.” A socially acceptable drug, caffeine has effects similar to Adderall and Ritalin, allowing workers and students to power through unhealthy sleep deprivation in order to meet the needs of a busy day. It has a relatively low health risk, and perhaps even some health benefits. Coffee is even hailed by BuzzFeed writers as “the ultimate elixir that will always solve your problems.” Caffeine has downsides, mainly minor withdrawal symptoms including extreme irritability and headaches, as well as the harm that comes from lack of sleep, but on the whole the drug is used very effectively to increase productivity. Amphetamines and methylphenidates, on the other hand, bring with them severe withdrawal symptoms, long-term dependency, and a host of mental illnesses. But on the other hand, they are wildly effective, allowing users to churn out work at a rate that puts coffee drinkers to shame.

What is the cost of a workplace spurred on by a drive for “success” and “achievement?” Hopefully not a workplace full of productivity-crazed men and women. It may be helpful to realize that these business buzzwords are nothing but means to motivate us, the 21st century’s students and workers, to an end. What is that end? F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his novella “The Great Gatsby,” tells the story of Jay Gatsby, a man of immense power, personality and wealth, who pulls himself up by his own hard work and a few shrewd business moves, and pursues a dream that he can never obtain. This impossible dream, symbolized by a green light across the water from the shore of his personal beach, drives him to spend his wealth and happiness in its pursuit. He loses friends, respect and ultimately his life. What is the modern student, the modern worker pursuing? Some “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”? Hopefully not the green lights of success and achievement. Should we chase the achievement of influence, financial stability, social status or even humanitarian ends at the cost of our well-being and mental health? Cognition-enhancing drugs will also place pressure on workers who would prefer to avoid the regular use of possibly dangerous mental stimulants. The change that Adderall and Ritalin have the power to make in today’s workplaces and schools can only be compared to the revolution of the computer. The advent of the computer drastically raised the productivity possibilities of the modern workplace, allowing workers and students to churn out work at a rate limited only by the capacity of their minds. Of course, this did not make it easier on the modern worker; it simply raised the bar. And now we have tools that can remove the limit of the capacity of our minds, but perhaps at the cost of our health and sanity. Should Adderall and Ritalin take their place in history alongside one of man’s most powerful productivity machines?

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