Record numbers of students and schoolchildren are being treated for addiction to stimulant ‘smart drugs’ which put them at risk of severe anxiety and insomnia, experts have warned.
The UK Addiction Treatment Group (UKAT), a leading addiction clinic, has been fielding enquiries from thousands of young people seeking help after becoming hooked on the tablets.
Smart drugs is an umbrella term for a number of medications that boost concentration, including Ritalin, also known as methylphenidate, and Adderall, which contains four types of amphetamine. Both are used to treat the mental health condition attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by increasing activity in areas of the brain that help control attention and behaviour.
However, in people who do not have ADHD they can boost energy and concentration, which is why they are often used by students, particularly at exam times.
Doctors warn that children are handing out these smart drugs to friends at school and have urged policymakers to toughen up regulations which currently allow private clinics to prescribe the powerful medications without a face-to-face consultation.
Drugs counsellors have said anxious students have been contacting them after becoming dependent upon smart drugs to cope with the stress of studying for exams
When taken as recommended, these drugs are not addictive. But many of those who abuse them are taking significantly higher doses or crushing the pills and snorting them, making them more potent. When taken in this way, the medication can become addictive, while also raising the risk of triggering sleep problems, anxiety and even heart damage.
UKAT has seen a nearly 80 per cent increase in calls for help from students and young professionals hooked on smart drugs compared with before the Covid pandemic.
Studies show that the number of ADHD medication prescriptions has risen by nearly 70 per cent since 2020 as a record number of people are diagnosed with the disorder. While many will have a genuine need, experts believe that this rise in ADHD is also being driven by private clinics that are overdiagnosing the condition.
As a result, there have even been intermittent shortages of some of these medications, meaning those in need have been unable to get vital treatment.
Doctors have warned students have been passing arround smart drugs to their friends at school
‘It’s worrying how easy it is for kids to get their hands on these pills,’ says Dr Mateen Durrani, a clinical psychiatrist at UKAT. ‘Often they’re being handed out at school by kids who have prescriptions.’
The misuse of ADHD medication is not a new phenomenon – one survey carried out in 2020 found that around six per cent of UK university students had taken it to help them study.
Some experts believe the sharp rise in smart drug addiction cases is linked to the Covid pandemic, which drastically reduced the time many students spent face-to-face with teachers and also led to exams being cancelled. Now, they argue, these students are turning to drugs to help them perform.
‘Since the pandemic, there has been a lot of pressure on students to catch up with the learning they missed,’ says Dr Durrani. ‘But what often happens is they will keep taking larger and larger amounts of these pills to maximise their concentration until they become hooked on the effect it has on the brain.’
Last month, a BBC investigation raised concerns that some private clinics were mistakenly diagnosing people with ADHD and offering them medication without meeting them face-to-face. Some experts believe this relaxed approach to prescribing such strong pills could be linked to the rise in addictions.
‘There’s been a massive increase in prescriptions since the pandemic,’ says Professor Philip Asherson, emeritus professor of neurodevelopmental psychiatry at King’s College London. ‘It’s possible this had led to a greater availability of the pills in schools.’
Dr Durrani agrees: ‘There is clearly very little regulation in the field, and one of the impacts is children abusing the drugs.’
But according to Dr Durrani, such an addiction is treatable.
‘We give patients a low-dose tranquilliser to combat the anxiety and agitation they often feel when they come off heavy doses of these drugs,’ she says.
The need to tackle the issue is clear. In the short term, stimulants can trigger nausea, reduced appetite, sleeping problems and anxiety. It has also been linked to the circulation condition Raynaud’s, which causes fingers and toes to turn white or blue, as well as leading to pain and numbness in the joints. But the pills can also elevate blood pressure and heart rate. Experts say that this could have dangerous consequences in the long-run.
‘The long-term impacts of abusing methylphenidate are unclear because it’s still relatively new,’ says Professor Asherson. ‘But taking very high quantities of this drug increase the risk of heart problems later in life.’