Stimulant Misuse: Myths, Misperceptions, And The Need For Patient-Directed Education

While Americans struggle with managing day-to-day life in the era of COVID-19, the added challenge of prescription drug misuse remains ever-present. The impact of coronavirus on misuse of medications is not fully known at this time, but the social, physical, and economic influences of the pandemic have already presented significant health and safety challenges for individuals across the board.

For an individual with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the disruption to structure and routine has been particularly challenging and may cause increased stress, anxiety, and sleep difficulties beyond what many ADHD-diagnosed individuals already experience. This change in routine and its potential emotional toll underscores the need for increased education on the responsible use of prescription stimulants, the drugs typically prescribed to manage symptoms of ADHD.

Additionally, there are numerous myths and misperceptions related to prescription stimulants that have helped contribute to a doubling of their use over the past decade. Dispelling these myths and misperceptions is important not only for individual health outcomes but also for helping to prevent diversion.

Myths and Misperceptions

By law, medications prescribed to treat ADHD are controlled substances because of their potential for abuse and dependence. Yet the perceived risk of the harmfulness of amphetamine use (inclusive of stimulants) among 19-year-olds declined by 25% between 2001 and 2016. In fact, teens and young adults believe that any drugs prescribed by a physician are “less risky than drugs obtained from a drug dealer,” and that their parents would not be concerned about their misuse of prescription medications.

It is true that stimulant medications are considered a safe and effective way to help treat symptoms experienced by individuals diagnosed with ADHD. However, there are numerous health risks that come with taking any drug in a way that it is not intended to be used. It seems that for many people, especially our nation’s youth, the risks of non-medical use of prescription stimulants do not outweigh the perceived benefits.

Several studies have shown that misuse of prescription stimulant medication is a prevalent and growing issue among high school and college students, primarily for perceived academic performance benefits. But despite the perception, prescription stimulants will not help someone to succeed academically. These medications are designed specifically to help improve brain inefficiencies of those with ADHD. In fact, research has confirmed that young people without an ADHD diagnosis who engaged in non-medical use of prescription stimulants showed no increases in GPA and gained no advantage over those who abstained from use.

It is also important to understand that at high doses, these medications can lead to a number of concerning health effects, including dangerously high body temperature, irregular heartbeat, heart failure, and seizures. And while there are pharmacological interventions to reverse overdose for some types of drugs, there are no “rescue medications” for stimulant overdose.

Prescription medicines play a critical role in healthcare and have helped millions of people with mental and physical health challenges. At the same time, it’s important for patients to recognize that any medication, when misused, can cause harm, especially when they are not taken as directed, under the care of a healthcare professional, and by the individual for which they were prescribed.

A Thoughtful Response

To help address issues specific to managing prescription stimulant medications, the Prescription Drug Safety Network worked in partnership with Adlon Therapeutics L.P., a subsidiary of Purdue Pharma L.P., to develop a new interactive video series and digital course designed for those diagnosed with ADHD and their caregivers. The content is modeled after EVERFI’s established Prescription Drug Safety course for high school students and is designed to reach learners outside of a classroom setting.

The video series and course include evidence-informed, interactive content developed to meet patients and caregivers where they are and when they are most receptive to learning. They include scenarios of fictional characters in various settings, including home, high school, university, and the workplace. Each video scenario allows participants to select from among a variety of actions for each character in response to challenges that range from improper storage and disposal to diversion, to interactions with other drugs. Participants are then provided feedback on their choice with further information corresponding to the topic of each video.

The content in these just-in-time learning modules has been thoughtfully developed to help patients and their caregivers become informed consumers of their prescription medications. Providing information about stimulant medications, in particular, can help patients with ADHD manage their medications responsibly. Building a sense of self-efficacy for managing stimulant medication may also empower patients to make more informed decisions about other medications, a potential step to drive change in the national landscape of prescription drug misuse.

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