Despite downsides, some UMN students opt for ADHD meds

About 6 percent of University students have ADHD, and 7 percent report taking someone else’s ADHD medication.

Michelle Griffith

University of Minnesota nutrition freshman Lexi Brand has been taking Focalin to manage her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder for eight years. However, the medication that helps her focus comes with tradeoffs – she also experiences side effects including periods of zero appetite and headaches.

Brand isn’t alone. Nearly 6 percent of University students have ADHD, according to a 2015 College Student Health Survey report, and many of them use medication to manage their symptoms. As the number of people who are prescribed drugs like Ritalin, Concerta and Adderall increases nationally, experts say doctors should diagnose ADHD carefully to avoid overmedicating or misdiagnosing patients.

Common ADHD diagnosis methods include questionnaires, computer simulations to test attention span and planning and concentration exercises, said Margaret Semrud-Clikeman, pediatric neuropsychologist and Division Director of the Pediatric Clinical Behavioral Neuroscience division.

People with ADHD have a “brain wiring difference,” Semrud-Clikeman said. “What we know from the neuroimaging and all the research that’s been done is that the brain is just set up differently.”

ADHD medication can be an important treatment for many with the disorder, but the disorder can be hard to diagnose because it shares symptoms with other disorders like PTSD and depression, sometimes leading to misdiagnosis and the incorrect prescription of ADHD medication, said psychologist David Nathan.

Once diagnosed, patients and doctors work together choose what kind of treatment to pursue, which could explain why providers are prescribing more medication, especially among women, Nathan said. The pills are an easy solution that appeals to many patients, he said.

Other scientifically-backed treatments include mindfulness, therapy and a healthy diet, he said. 

However, medications can have adverse side effects – such as lack of appetite, insomnia, headaches and stomach pain – that discourage patients from taking them.

Some patients opt to switch medications. A few years ago, Brand stopped taking the Adderall she was prescribed because she experienced weight loss and excruciating headaches and started taking Focalin.

“My mom saw the symptoms I had and decided to get me on another medication,” Brand said.

Others, like environmental science freshman Abby Hornberger, decide to stop taking ADHD medication altogether.

“I was always angry at my friends and I was never hungry. I never wanted to do anything with my friends, like even sitting down and watching a movie,” Hornberger said, adding she never felt like herself.

Rather than endure negative side effects, Hornberger said she learned to manage symptoms on her own.

The medication can add social strain for those who take it legally. Hornberger said friends who knew she had ADHD pestered her for the medication she wasn’t using.

While 0.5 percent of University students said they had used an ADHD medication in the last year, 7 percent of students reported using someone else’s ADHD medication, according to the CSHS report.

Many people learn to live with their ADHD symptoms and find the disorder is manageable, Semrud-Clikeman said, but medication remains a helpful tool for many.

Since starting Adderall in the fall, freshman Joe Dobos said he can concentrate on school and complete his work on time. He has also lost 100 pounds.

“The best thing is that I can read chapter books now. I was never able to sit down and concentrate,” Dobos said, adding that he bought three books from Barnes & Noble when he realized he could finally read them.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the ADHD diagnosis and treatment processes and some issues associated with them. ADHD can be hard to diagnose because it shares symptoms with other conditions, and patients and doctors work together to determine the best treatment route for ADHD.