June 21, 2000
Now that three to four million U.S. schoolchildren are using the
controversial stimulant Ritalin, its illicit use is providing a
powerful kick to college students, too. Dr. Eric Heiligenstein puts it
this way: "The study rooms are as good as some of the local pharmacies"
at the University of Wisconsin.
According to an informal investigation, Dr. Heiligenstein found
that one in five college students on Ritalin are upping their doses or
otherwise misusing their prescriptions. Some share pills with their
Some even crush and snort Ritalin as a substitute for cocaine.
Indeed, according to a 1995 Drug Enforcement Administration report,
"methylphenidate [the key ingredient in Ritalin] is a central nervous
system stimulant and shares many of the pharmacological effects of
amphetamine, methamphetamine, and cocaine."
Production of Ritalin increased by nearly 700% between 1990 and
1997, and usage increases every year. The justification for the boom
in Ritalin is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), first
defined by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980.
The pediatric guidelines for diagnosing ADHD are all subjective;
e.g., often has difficulty awaiting turn, occasionally may do things
compulsively, easily distracted from tasks, fails to give close
attention to details, makes careless mistakes. With such non-
scientific behavioral criteria, it's no wonder we hear that
extraordinary numbers of children are accused of having ADHD.
Not even the NCAA, the governing body for collegiate sports, bars
its athletes from using Ritalin anymore. The NCAA now allows its use,
even though Ritalin is prohibited by the U.S. and International Olympic
One reason for the explosion of Ritalin usage and the inability of
the NCAA and other organizations to ban its use can be found in the
1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed during
the Bush Administration. IDEA mandates that "eligible children receive
access to special education and/or related services."
The old excuse of "my dog ate my homework" has been replaced by "I
got an ADHD diagnosis." Since this labeling brings more money into the
schools, it's not surprising that schools often pressure parents to get
an ADHD diagnosis and put their child on Ritalin.
It's also in the school's interest to deal with behavioral and
discipline problems, especially of boys, with a drug. It's so easy to
use Ritalin to make kids compliant: to get them to sit down, shut up,
and do what they're told.
Advantages of an ADHD classification also inure to college
students. Requests for extra time to complete the SATs, MCATs and
LSATs, based on an ADHD claim, substantially increased during the
At an Ivy League school, a student can merely present a doctor's
letter and some pills to obtain extra time for routine assignments.
Whittier Law School was sued by an ADHD student for providing only 20
extra minutes instead of a full extra hour for an exam that was only
scheduled to be an hour long.
Many high school shootings have been linked to prescribed mind-altering drugs. Oregon high school killer Kip Kinkel had been given
Ritalin and Prozac, Columbine killer Eric Harris had taken another
psychotropic drug, Georgia high school student T.J. Solomon had been on
Ritalin prior to his alleged shooting spree, and Oklahoma middle school
student Seth Trickey was on two drugs described to have psychotic
effects when he allegedly shot at four students.
According to a study reported in the Journal of the American
Medical Association, about one percent of children aged 2 to 4 are
using Ritalin or Ritalin-like drugs, and that percentage is increasing
rapidly. Ritalin has not been approved by the FDA for use by children
under age six.
Many believe that a diagnosis of ADHD is nearly impossible to make
in preschoolers because behaviors that are considered signs of the
disorder in older children are normal behaviors for toddlers.
Judy Garland's dependence on Ritalin was poignantly described in
her daughter Lorna Luft's book, "Me and My Shadows."
John Silber, Chancellor of Boston University, says that the
"principal attraction of Ritalin is that it is a comparatively cheap
way to get symptomatic relief. ... It is in fact a classic example of
a cheap fix: low-cost, simple and purely superficial."
Matthew Smith began taking Ritalin at age six. This March, at age
14, he was still on Ritalin when he suddenly collapsed while
skateboarding and died that same evening.
Oakland County (MI) Medical Examiner Ljubisa Dragovic determined
the cause of death to be Ritalin. Matthew's "long-term exposure to
stimulants" was the only explanation he could find.
Pressure rained down on Dr. Dragovic to change his conclusion, but
he held firm, saying: "I'm not telling people what to do with their
children or patients. These are our findings. Take them or leave
A parent should agree to place a child on Ritalin only after an
examination by the child's own physician (not the school's) and the
parent is satisfied that there isn't some medical or behavioral problem
that might better be treated in another way. Parents should be alert
to the conflict of interest in allowing school employees to dictate
treatment for their children.
Further reading about Ritalin.