The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 2 (Summer 2013)

Youth and Prescription Drugs

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.2 (Summer 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2013

(Volume 15 | Issue 2)


he ADHD epidemic is back in the press, with new numbers on the steady rise in diagnosed cases and the increased use of stimulant medications, both with and without prescription. The worry about giving drugs to children dates back to 1970, when an article in The Washington Post set off a pubic outcry over the treatment of school children in Omaha, Nebraska, with “behavior modification” drugs, including Ritalin and Dexedrine.1

The debate has been rekindled recently with new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documenting that, in 2012, 11 percent of children between the ages of four and seventeen (15 percent of boys and 7 percent of girls) were reported to have had an ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) diagnosis at some point, up from 9.5 percent in 2007 and representing an increase of one million children (from 5.4 to 6.4 million). The rate for high school-age boys (19 percent) was especially high. Of those reported with current ADHD, about two-thirds were taking medication, generally a stimulant like Ritalin or Adderall.2 Further, the abuse (use without a prescription) of stimulant medications as study aids in both high school and college has also been featured in the press, with concern focused on rising numbers, potential side-effects, and the fierce pursuit of good grades.

Two recent surveys of college students, both conducted in the fall semester of 2012, provide some context for all the drug taking. The American Freshman Survey, conducted annually by the Higher Education Research Institute with nearly 200,000 full-time, first-year students, includes questions about mental health. One item asks students if they felt “overwhelmed by all I had to do” during their senior year of high school. The percentage of first-year students, men and women, who answer “frequently,” has been rising since the survey started in 1985 (see graph). In fall 2012, the percentage for women reached a new high, with 40.5 percent reporting being frequently overwhelmed. The rate for men was much lower (18.3 percent) but also near the upper end of the historical spectrum.3

In April, the American College Health Association released the results of its semi-annual survey of tens of thousands of full-time college students, the National College Health Assessment (NCHA). The Assessment includes a battery of questions on mental health. If many students are overwhelmed in high school, they report even more problems in college. Asked if they “felt overwhelmed by all you had to do,” some 69 percent answered “yes” for the past thirty-day period. Almost the same percentage answered “yes” when asked if they “felt exhausted (not from physical activity).” A third or more of students reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety,” “very lonely,” and “very sad” in the past month, and a quarter reported feeling that “things were hopeless.”

The NCHA also found that 21 percent of students had been diagnosed or treated for a mental health problem in the past twelve months, with anxiety, depression, and attention deficit leading the list. Furthermore, nearly 13 percent of students had used a prescription drug without a prescription during the previous year. Stimulant medications were the most common, but pain killers, like Oxycontin, were not far behind.4

With such pervasive emotional struggles, it should perhaps come as no surprise that large numbers of youth are finding their way to mood and behavior medications.


  1. Robert Maynard, “Omaha Pupils Given ‘Behavior’ Drugs,” The Washington Post (29 June 1970): 1.
  2. Alan Schwarz and Sarah Cohen, “A.D.H.D. Seen in 11% of U.S. Children as Diagnoses Rise,” The New York Times (1 April 2013): A1.
  3. John H. Pryor, Kevin Egan, Laura Palucki Blake, Sylvia Hurtado, Jennifer Berdan, and Matthew H. Case, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2012 (Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2012): <>.
  4. American College Health Association, American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Undergraduate Reference Group Executive Summary Fall 2012 (Hanover: American College Health Association, 2013): <>.

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