Carmel Unified School District Health Specialist Susan Pierzalowski was familiar with the effects of Adderall before she started at CUSD. At another school, she encountered a female student who was feverish, dizzy, confused and sweating. She had high blood pressure and hadn’t slept in a day.
The student admitted she’d taken several capsules of Adderall, a stimulant normally prescribed to those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, without having a prescription.
What Pierzalowski saw that day echoes the effects faced by the Carmel High School seniors who take the medication for academic advantages.
Even with the potential risk of sudden cardiac arrest, an extra boost can seem necessary to some in high-performing high schools. CHS qualifies: This year, 54 of 165 seniors have a perfect 4.0 grade point average – or better.
“Students tell me that they don’t sleep, and not because they were tossing and turning,” says Bill Schrier, AP government teacher at CHS.
In other words: all-nighters.
“That kills me,” he says. “As much as I want them to pass AP exams, it’s not the end of the world. To think [high schools] are creating an environment that may require that is a serious problem.”
Schrier even had Pierzalowski give a presentation encouraging sleep.
“ TWO B’S. MY LIFE IS OVER.”
“My junior year, I got two Bs and I freaked out,” says CHS senior Will Perkins, who is taking engineering and three AP classes. “I was like, ‘Holy crap, two Bs, my life is over.’ It’s just really competitive for college now.”
Data from the California Healthy Kids Survey took into account legal and illegal repeated use of Adderall and Ritalin, a similar drug. The percentage of CHS students who used it at least four times more than tripled, from 2 to 7 percent, as they moved from ninth to 11th grade.
One senior who says he took the medication says, “I used it not only to stay up for finals – it does help you focus, that’s undeniable – but I used it to cope with stress, too.” (Students who admit to using the pills illegally are not named in this article.)
Another senior said he’d take a pill twice a day during finals week: 20 milligrams in the morning to get through his test, and 20 more in the afternoon to study for the next.
School district administrators aren’t taking the issue lightly.
“I am very concerned about the risk of serious cardiac risks, including sudden death, related to the use of dextroamphetamine or amphetamine – especially when the medication is not prescribed or monitored by a physician,” says Heath Rocha, the district’s director of special education, student services and child development.
“Those with a history of psychiatric problems can experience new or worse thought problems, new or worse bi-polar illness or new psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices or believing things that are not true,” Pierszalowski adds.
Those concerns grow with availability. One Carmel senior who illicitly used the drug for study reasons says, “If you wanted some right now, you probably could get it in a few hours.”
Not all students use the pills illegally; some are prescribed. One Carmel senior says he was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADD and dysgraphia.
“I have trouble with visual processes,” he says. “Basically, eyes to paper takes a bit longer, and then there’s misspelling things and all the regular dyslexia symptoms. School’s always been really hard for me.”
A year and a half into his Adderall prescription, his ailments aren’t having as much of an effect.
“As soon as I got prescribed Adderall, I got all As,” he says. “It allowed me to do things I wouldn’t have been able to do.”
It’s this mental clarity that those not prescribed the drug also seek.
“Thoughts don’t float into your brain like in normal life,” says another illicit user. “When you are on Adderall, this conversation is the only thing that exists.” But when the pill wears off, problems persist.
“They were bad crashes,” acknowledges a student user. He says the after effects included exhaustion, depression and a sore jaw from teeth-grinding.
Another effect: dependence.
“You can’t kid yourself; it’s really addictive,” he adds. “It’d be like, ‘Crap, I feel terrible right now. I just need it because I want to do well on this test and be on top of my game.’”
One pill a day became two, then three, even on light academic days.
“It kind of scared me,” the student says. “When I took three for Powder Puff [football day], I realized I was building up a mental addiction because I need it just to get through the day.”
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