Raising a Generation of Pill-Poppers; How Abuse of ‘Uppers,’ ‘Downers,’ and Stimulants Threatens an Entire Generation

April 22, 2016 Updated: April 23, 2016

Far from being recognized for their potential health hazards, ADHD drugs have gained a reputation as “cognition enhancers” among students and young professionals. Narcotic painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, and antidepressants are also notoriously overprescribed, which I’ll address below. 

According to data from IMS Health, a whopping 48.4 million prescriptions for ADHD stimulants were written in 2011, up 39 percent from 2007. As reported by CNN Health:

“Prescription ADHD medications like Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse are becoming increasingly popular for overworked and overscheduled college students—who haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD… 

The numbers vary significantly by school, with the greatest proportion of users at private and ‘elite’ universities. Some researchers estimate about 30 percent of students use stimulants non-medically.

‘When we look at upperclassmen, the number really begins to jump,’ says Alan DeSantis, professor of communications at the University of Kentucky who has conducted research on stimulant use in college. ‘The more time you stay on campus, the more likely you are to use.'”

ADHD Drugs Are Far From Harmless

(Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)
(Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

One 2008 study, which interviewed 1,800 college students, reported that 81 percent of them perceived illicit use of ADHD drugs as being completely harmless, or only “slightly dangerous.” 

Drugs like as Ritalin, Vyvanse, Strattera, and Adderall have very real health risks.

This is despite the fact that these drugs are Schedule II substances—just like cocaine, methamphetamines, and morphine. As such, drugs like as Ritalin, Vyvanse, Strattera, and Adderall have very real health risks. Commonly reported short-term side effects include:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Restlessness
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Changes in sex drive

Accidental overdose and/or acute adverse effects are also quite possible, as recent statistics demonstrate. According to a report, ADHD drugs were responsible for nearly 23,000 emergency room visits in 2011. 

This is a more than 400 percent increase in ER visits due to adverse reactions to ADHD medication in a mere six years.The increase was most dramatic among 18- to 25-year-olds. Far more serious adverse effects of ADHD drugs include: 

  • Permanent brain damage
  • Liver damage
  • Heart and blood vessel damage
  • Heart attack, stroke, and sudden death
  • Changes in personality, depression and/or hallucinations, and suicide
  • Increased cancer risk

Risks of Popular Anxiety Drugs Overshadowed by Opioid Epidemic

John Moore/Getty Images)
(John Moore/Getty Images)

Benzodiazepines, a class of anxiety drugs, are also widely overused, and a common source of drug addiction. As reported by NPR:

“The drugs first burst onto the scene in the 1950s and ’60s and quickly became known as ‘mother’s little helper,’ the mild tranquilizer that could soothe frazzled housewives’ nerves. More than four decades later, benzos —including Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, and Ativan—are used to treat anxiety, mood disorders and insomnia. 

Dr. Michael Kelley, the medical director of the behavioral department at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, Maine, says he doesn’t go a single day without seeing somebody addicted to them… 

‘They do produce a strong, physical dependence that can create life-threatening withdrawal seizures and other consequences, but I think that the perception that they’re harmful is low,’ he says.”

Even more disturbing, these drugs are frequently prescribed along with opiates—narcotic painkillers such as morphine, codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. Both benzodiazepines and opiates are sedatives that slow down your respiration, which can lead to death. This risk is greatly enhanced when these two drugs are mixed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the combination of benzodiazepines and opioids accounts for about 30 percent of all opioid-related deaths, which claim an estimated 16,600 lives each year.

The combination of benzodiazepines and opioids accounts for about 30 percent of all opioid-related deaths.

Narcotic painkillers have now been officially identified as a major “gateway drug” to heroin, which is less expensive than its prescription counterparts. The U.S. Justice Department has even declared that prescription opiates and heroin are two of the most lethal substances available today. 

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced his office is taking steps to address America’s burgeoning drug problem head-on. This effort includes but is not limited to tracking drug overdose trends, educating health care professionals and the public about prescription drug abuse, and promoting programs shown to prevent such abuse. The federal government will also require manufacturers of extended-release and long-acting opioids to provide prescribers with educational programs explaining the risks and benefits of opioid therapy, and how to select appropriate candidates for such therapy.

Prescription Painkillers Increase Your Risk of Depression

There’s little doubt that many are completely oblivious to the risks of these kinds of prescription drugs. Or choose to turn a blind eye, in order to get quick relief. One side effect that many are completely unaware of is that narcotic painkillers (opioids) can significantly raise your risk of developing major depression. 

Research shows the risk for depression can kick in after using opioids for a mere 90 days. Taking a narcotic painkiller for 90 to 180 days increased the risk for depression by 25 percent in study participants. Those who took opioids for 180 days or longer were at a 53 percent increased risk of developing depression compared to those who did not take such drugs.

It’s not entirely clear how narcotic painkillers induce depression, although it’s widely known that they have a strong impact on your brain. The drugs work by binding to receptors in your brain to decrease the perception of pain. But they also create a temporary feeling of euphoria followed by dysphoria that can easily lead to physical dependence and addiction. The researchers speculated that there could be numerous factors linking opioid painkillers with depression:

“Some of these include opioid-induced resetting of the brain’s ‘reward pathway’ to a higher level, which means the chronic use of narcotic pain killers can elevate the threshold for a person’s ability to experience pleasure from natural rewards such as a food or sexual activity. Other factors may include body aches months and years after the use of opioids has stopped, side effects such as adrenal, testosterone and vitamin D deficiencies and glucose dysregulation.”


Getting Off the Drug Merry-Go-Round

Between the rampant overuse of stimulants such as ADHD drugs, sedating anti-anxiety medications, pain-killing narcotics, and mind-numbing antidepressants, you’d think “life” was a disease to be medicated away. Of course there are situations where these drugs are warranted, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. The fact of the matter is that all of these mind- and body-numbing drugs are grossly overused. I’d be willing to bet that a majority of people taking them are not appropriate candidates, and would fare much better were they to address the basic, core issues relating to their general lifestyle and health

This includes proper diet, sleep, exercise, and employing effective tools for stress relief. Exposure to the outdoors, such as walking barefoot through a grassy field and getting appropriate amounts of sun exposure, also should not be underestimated.