The Downside of Students Aiming High

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Last week, President Obama outlined education proposals to close our nation’s achievement divide—a gap that has widened in recent decades, according to new research.

Compared to the systemic issues facing America’s poorest schools, the relentless push to succeed at top high schools and colleges seems like a “first-world problem.”  Still, the recent story of a class president who killed himself after becoming addicted to Adderall reminds us that pressure-cooker environments damage young people, too.

As I read Richard Fee’s story, I thought of my own high school classmates.  Richard could have been one of them—bright, motivated, destined to make it.  And yet, he also possessed the quality I observed in many over-achieving kids: the determination to succeed at all costs.  This drive led him to fake ADHD symptoms repeatedly in order to obtain a steady supply of Adderall; the tunnel-like focus the drug provided allowed him to cram for exams and write papers for eight hours straight.  Sadly, he didn’t realize that the pills were highly addictive, until it was too late.

Certainly, psychiatrists who gave Richard a hasty diagnosis and continued to prescribe the drug are partially to blame.  Studies estimate that up to thirty-five percent of college students take stimulant medications to boost school performance.  There must be a better diagnostic process to distinguish those who actually have ADHD from those who are simply faking it.  And, as with all prescription drugs, we need a national monitoring database so that doctors and pharmacists have a way to flag potential abusers.

First and foremost, however, I think we need to look at the growing demand for “the good-grade pill,” rather than focusing exclusively on the supply.  In a piece that accompanied Richard’s story, The New York Times invited teens and young adults to share their personal experiences with study drugs.  I was struck by these students’ descriptions of the pressure to perform.  “Adderall is popular in my school, where it’s highly competitive,” one Minneapolis teen said.  “Everyone is competing against one another for scholarships and it definitely gives you an extra edge over students who don’t take it.”  A 20-year-old from Los Angeles made a stronger statement. “My whole life I’ve been told that the only way to be successful (see: acceptable) is through academic excellence,” he wrote.  “The parents and educators who express shock at these kids using study drugs ought to look in the mirror; they are equally responsible.  Change your unrealistic expectations or take that My Kid is an Honor Student bumper sticker off your minivan.”

Although I was fortunate to have parents who were proud of me no matter what my report card said, I certainly felt the need to meet high expectations—and I was not alone.  I wasn’t aware of any of my classmates dealing or abusing drugs like Adderall, but it wouldn’t have surprised me.  For us, self-worth and achievement were one and the same—as we rushed from one AP class to the next, then to sports practice, then to play rehearsal, then to the newspaper office, before finally attacking the nightly mountain of homework.  I remember when one English teacher, alarmed by the dark circles under our eyes, asked the entire class to go around and tell her how much sleep we’d gotten the night before; five hours was the average response.  She looked slightly horrified, but our workload was not adjusted.

We cannot know what was going on in Richard Fee’s head when he chose to take Adderall—or when he decided to end his life.  But his story speaks to the anxieties far too many young people experience.  For some teens, their stress is largely self-induced.  But I believe it is also due to the messages (both direct and subliminal) driven kids receive from adults and from one another.  Providing an environment where children are encouraged to reach their full potential is one thing; setting teens on an endless hamster wheel of goals and expectations is another.  When it comes to protecting students from study drugs, let’s listen to our kids—and take a look in the mirror.

Kate Schmier
Blog Editor, Phoenix House


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