Kelly: Stress. It affects all age groups, including teenagers and young adults. Some may handle it in a therapeutic manner, such as by going to the gym, walking a dog or meditation, while others handle the stress in a negative way and self-medicate for a quick fix. As the stress levels soar, so does common drug abuse of stimulants like Adderall.
Today, students abuse stimulants more than ever following an increase in prescriptions as well as illegal distribution. Other than for ADHD, why would teens feel the need to take stimulants? Most don't do it for recreation. Often, stimulant abuse is different from other drug abuse in that people take stimulants to accomplish a particular task, rather than to simply get high. Whether it be studying for a test or writing a paper, students can easily fall into a habit of depending on stimulants when the going gets tough. Perhaps if the students had used their time wisely, they wouldn't need to be dependent on the drugs. But is the lack of persistence because of pure laziness, or is it possibly something deeper, more psychological?
Most kids who abuse stimulants feel as though they can't work without them, attempting to enhance their concentration and improve their academic performance. They see a need to enhance performance because of the pressure from school, parents or community. In this world, only the persistently strong survive. College life can make or break you, depending on how you handle it. College is one of the few opportunities we are given in life to prove ourselves, and how you perform in high school will have a great influence on your ability to get into college. Some cannot handle that notion of failure and will go to any measure to avoid it.
So, as a society, should we band together to alleviate some of the pressure on students? Or should we tell them to grin and bear it and accept one of the many facts of life? Becoming reliant on such a drug can create numerous problems. If you are a student who feels this is happening to you, there are ways to stop it. The most efficient is through psychological counseling to determine the seriousness of your problem and what treatment may be helpful in addressing it.
Wes: One of the great blessings and curses I've seen in my 15 years of clinical practice and five years of research and training before that is our changing approach to psychopharmaceuticals. On the blessing side, I've written many times about lives changed and even saved, marriages brought back from the dead, hospitalizations avoided and parent-child relationships greatly improved by a good combination of psychotherapy and medication management. The effort by some to pooh-pooh meds as a conspiracy of big pharmaceutical companies just doesn't bear out in clinical practice. As for curses, I've a deep concern over what I consider THE fundamental mental health dilemma of this century: We're increasingly inclined to medicate ourselves and our society out of whatever problematic patterns we've created, rather than to find a way to change those patterns. Kelly proposes but one of the teenage versions of this disturbing trend, the complexity of which goes far beyond this column.
Young people feel increasingly over-stressed, pressured to succeed, fearful about their prospects in high school and college. The stakes seem incredibly high, and many feel equally inadequate. In past generations college wasn't the only path in life. There were good-paying, solid jobs in factories, small business, trades and other industry. But over the decades those jobs have moved into the service sector and information management, and most of them have become more competitive and require some form of higher education. Nearly every time a major industry shuts down, politicians suggest "more education" as an answer to workers' concerns about where they'll draw their next paycheck. So school is EVERYTHING now and those who can't keep up rightly fear being left in the ditch of life. The great gift of technology requires us to manage more and more information efficiently wherever we work, and that means learning becomes more complex and demanding from kindergarten through college. Throw in some yearly assessments so we don't "leave any children behind" and you have a recipe for a tense learning environment.
In response, I am seeing a significant increase in school refusal (truancy) and dropping out - many times with kids who have absolutely no plan for what to do next. In fact we'll respond to a letter about that in a few weeks. The majority who do hang in there are, as Kelly suggests, desperately seeking some edge to get ahead. Unfortunately, stimulants often seem to be that edge, and thus we commonly see the sort of abuse that Kelly describes. We'll discuss this problem in a future column. For now suffice it to say that stimulant abuse is one of those issues that go well beyond behavioral management or moral reasoning, requiring more than a quick fix in a culture that increasingly seeks chemical answers - both legal and illegal - to its various maladies.
Next week: My teenager lies about everything.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.