story from New York Times journalist Alan Schwarz about ADHD and stimulant abuse linked with a story of suicide. Like many of the recent media articles on this serious issue, there is a more complex and I think more compelling story. Unfortunately, too many readers, clinicians, and institutions are ending up fearful of treatment for legitimately diagnosed ADHD while the issue of reducing stimulant abuse and diagnosing ADHD accurately often goes by the wayside.
While stimulant abuse is a very serious and out-of-control problem, the consistent link to suicide in many of these stories is highly misleading. When there is suicidal behavior there are always serious mental health problems and often substance abuse as well. Appropriate use of stimulants is not causally related to suicide. But reading the spate of media on this topic, you would easily be convinced that they are related. Creating an atmosphere of fear does not help us to rationally and effectively address the problem of stimulant abuse.
I was very dismayed at the description of college health centers that have stopped diagnosing and treating ADHD because it takes too much time to do it right. Do we stop diagnosing cancer, depression, appendicitis, or any other medical problem because it takes too much time? Proper and thorough evaluation combined with multimodal treatment within a university setting is one of the important things that a university can do to control stimulant abuse on campus. It seems to me that some of the knee-jerk reaction is more out of concern about liability and reputation, than about good medical treatment.
When working on this story, Alan Schwarz contacted CHADD and asked for our take on this issue. I would like to share with all of you the written comments I gave to the New York Times in their entirety.
[Text of comments to NYT]
At CHADD we are very concerned about stimulant abuse for a series of reasons. First, no one should be using any prescription drug that has not been prescribed for them. There are the consequences of side effects, drug interactions and other problems that may place a person at risk. If an individual feels it’s okay to use a stimulant, it is too easy to then take an opiate that has not been prescribed and is then entering even more dangerous practices. Prescription abuse is never acceptable.
Second, stimulant abuse and the emotional reaction that it have engendered has many adverse consequences for people who need stimulant treatment for ADHD. It makes it more unacceptable to seek diagnosis and treatment and creates a culture of fear and stigma. Many of our members reported during the drug shortage last year that they were treated like drug addicts when they had to go to more than one pharmacy to find who had stimulant medications.
CHADD strongly advocates for a good diagnostic and evaluation process which entails spending extensive time with a patient, getting an in depth history of the patient and the family, asking for reports from family members, teachers, or employers, as well as observation of the patient directly and utilization of symptom checklist. This cannot be done in ten minutes. If a physician is unable or unwilling to do an in depth evaluation, then a patient should be referred to a specialist who will do this level of evaluation.
Looking at the information you provided about college response to this issue, it seems to me a very mixed group of interventions. Here are the questions I would urge a college to consider when making policy about stimulant abuse:
- Any policies related to stimulant abuse should be consistent for all controlled medications. So if a college health center asks a student to attend sign an agreement about abuse, it should also be used for a student prescribed a pain killer given for a sports injury.
- Are the actions proposed going to both help the patient as well as reduce the possibility of stimulant misuse?
- Are there other disorders that have the same or higher level of risks, and are those disorders being treated in a similar fashion?
- And are the policies in the best interest of the student presenting with the symptoms?
- What other actions need to be taken to reduce stimulant misuse on campus?
Requiring students to sign a release to allow the physician to contact parents for a history is good medical practice and should always be happening. A proper evaluation for ADHD should ALWAYS include the reports of other key informants, a lifetime history of either treatment for ADHD or the symptoms of ADHD and an in-depth evaluation that cannot be done in ten minutes. For the same reason CHADD understands the requirement of monthly counseling sessions. This is always a component of good, multimodal treatment for ADHD. I hope these treatment sessions are designed to help the student with the challenges of college life and ADHD, and are not just centered on stimulant misuse.
I am very concerned about any university health center that refuses to diagnose students with ADHD or does not allow a clinician to prescribe stimulants. It appears to me that these schools are more concerned about liability issues than good medical treatment or controlling abuse of stimulants. And I would also suggest that this deviates significantly from the established standards of care and practice guidelines for physicians dealing with ADHD. It is also discriminatory if the health center does not do the same for all controlled medications. The abuse of pain medications is a much larger problem with much more serious consequences. Are they also refusing to treat pain related to injury, treatment, or illness? If a university is very concerned about stimulant abuse, I would think the worst thing they could do is to relinquish this responsibility to unknown community practitioners. Nonprescribed use of stimulant medications on campus is a serious problem that can’t just be punted to someone else outside the school grounds.
CHADD is deeply concerned about the misuse of stimulants. We work with our members and young adults to learn how to more safely manage the medications, and how to deal with peer pressure to share. We are also concerned that legitimate diagnosis and treatment of ADHD in young people in particular is endangered, because of concerns about stimulant misuse.
[End of comments to NYT]
I share my written comments to the New York Times here primarily to inform our members about CHADD’s take on the issue of health care on college campuses as well as to provide insight into CHADD’s outreach efforts with the media.
CHADD will continue to provide evidence-based information about ADHD. We will strive to increase understanding of the complex issues of ADHD diagnosis and treatment. The press doesn’t always get it right, and in the case of a medical condition like ADHD, may do unintentional harm by adding to the stigma and fear associated with the disorder or the treatment. For all of you who have ADHD or have a loved one with ADHD, it is imperative that we set the record straight, and help our communities understand that ADHD is a real neurological disorder that can be accurately diagnosed and effectively treated.
Ruth Hughes, PhD, is CEO of CHADD.