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Student health: Fighting abuse of stimulants

Student health centers are a necessity to college life. On-campus medical staffs treat students, many living away from home and their regular doctors, for conditions that range from the common cold to severe depression. An increasing number of clinics, however, are opting out of diagnosing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among their students or are tightening rules on prescribing the much-misused stimulant medications used to treat it. This is a fair decision as long as schools refer students with legitimate needs to trusted off-campus providers.

Taking stimulants, such as Adderall, to improve focus and to gain an academic edge isn’t rare today — research suggests that more than one-third of college students illicitly take ADHD drugs. Abuse of stimulants has been linked to anxiety, depression, and student suicides. Harvard is currently litigating a medical malpractice suit brought by the father of a student who committed suicide. In 2007, the student received an ADHD diagnosis and Adderall prescription after meeting with a university nurse only once.

Fear of litigation shouldn’t dictate campus health policies. It’s also important not to overburden young people actually suffering from the condition; about 15 percent of American high school students have received a diagnosis of ADHD, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Furthermore, any decision to end ADHD treatment should also go hand in hand with other efforts to help stop misuse, such as incorporating the perils of stimulant misuse into campus health education or treating use without a prescription as an honor code violation.


Nonetheless, The New York Times reports schools including Penn State and Georgia Tech are being overwhelmed by the volume of students seeking an ADHD diagnosis. Proper evaluation requires hours of medical care, generally involving both rigorous neuropsychological testing as well as conversations with parents and teachers to assess symptoms and rule out other explanations. Health centers that choose to forgo this process and instead guide students to trained, high-quality clinicians off-site are doing campuses no disservice.