The understanding that high-achieving students turn to drugs like Adderall and Ritalin to get ahead academically is so well-documented that the stereotype has made its way onto TV shows like Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars. You get the idea: A smart student uses Adderall as a secret weapon to focus during a tough homework assignment or a major exam.
But as the new Netflix documentary Take Your Pills reiterates, drugs like Adderall aren't performance supplements. They're really meant for people who actually have an attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and there's a huge difference between lacking focus and having ADHD.
"Everyone has distractions and difficulty getting things done," says Yamalis Diaz, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. "But there is a very significant difference between general distractibility and ADHD that those medications are intended to address."
Unlike harmless distractions, ADHD is a chronic condition that involves difficulty focusing. Dr. Diaz says it's an often-genetic neurological disorder, in which different parts of the brain are either underactive or overactive. And drugs like Adderall are meant to bring those parts of the brain to normal functioning levels.
"Adderall and stimulant medications, which are often the first line of defense in treating ADHD from a medical standpoint, are thought to enhance certain neurochemicals that are involved in focus, paying attention, and also motor control and impulse control," she says. "So the main components of ADHD are re-regulated through those impulses."
You really are messing with brain chemistry at that point and you could really do some damage.
Yamalis Diaz, PhD
But in order to be diagnosed with ADHD, Dr. Diaz says that a person has to have at least six symptoms of inattention "happening most of the time, altogether causing you actual daily functional impairment."
Those symptoms include: being easily distracted, difficulty focusing on tasks, not following through on instructions, having trouble organizing, making careless mistakes, and being generally forgetful. Sometimes, a person might also have symptoms of hyperactivity and the impulsivity, though that's more common in children than it is in adults.
"Children don’t typically outgrow ADHD, so we have adults who have ADHD," Dr. Diaz says. "The inattention we see persists long into adulthood, and that usually is what causes adults the most amount of impairment."
If you haven't been diagnosed with ADHD, using Adderall could become severely damaging.
"If you don't have ADHD, you are taking regular levels of neurological chemicals and heightening them past the normal level, whereas for people with ADHD, it brings their chemicals to a normal level," Dr. Diaz says. "So you really are messing with brain chemistry at that point and you could really do some damage."
She says that taking ADHD medications off-label when you aren't supposed to can, in some cases, lead to rapid heart rates and even heart attacks.
"I think it’s important for people to understand that they're putting themselves in some real danger," she says.
Whether you're taking Adderall or any other pill, self-medicating without a doctor's input is ill-advised. We all get distracted, and we all procrastinate from time to time, but if you think you're suffering from ADHD, it's best to check in with a medical professional before you diagnose yourself — even if it seems like everyone around you is doing it.
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