Snorting for Superior SATs?

Just how much pressure are we putting on our high school students to get those make-or-break grades, and even more so – the highest possible SAT or ACT scores to get into college? Must every child have that much coveted four-year education? Just how far will we push our kids to make that happen?

In Sunday’s New York Times, Alan Schwarz reports on the “Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill,” and students who snort the ADHD drug, Adderall, just prior to taking their grueling SAT exams.

Like most of the mothers I know, I forked over hundreds of dollars in SAT-prep classes (on credit), sprung for the weightlifting-worthy study guides (on credit), and witnessed both my kids pull out all the stops on at least some of these exams.

But to my knowledge, they weren’t indulging in a prescription drug to heighten their focus before putting Number 2 pencil to paper. Yet how would I know – really? How would any parent know if their teens are abusing legal drugs for good grades? And more disturbing – if we did, would we object?

Mr. Schwartz describes the scene in a suburban New York City parking lot, quoting a student:

Before opening the car door, [the boy] recalled recently, he twisted open a capsule of orange powder and arranged it in a neat line on the armrest. He leaned over, closed one nostril, and snorted it. Throughout the parking lot, he said, eight of his friends were dong the same thing.

Prevalence of Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

The article reports that scenes like this are taking place across the country, where pressure to perform is raising the stakes for teenagers, and access to these prescription drugs doesn’t seem to be an issue. Clearly, growing competition for grades and test scores is.

And incidentally, when it comes to those ADHD meds, Mr. Schwarz points out:

The number of prescriptions for A.D.H.D. medications dispensed for young people ages 10 to 19 has risen 26 percent since 2007, to almost 21 million yearly, according to IMS Health, a health care information company — a number that experts estimate corresponds to more than two million individuals.

I don’t consider myself even remotely qualified to comment on those ADHD med statistics, which nonetheless seem worthy of scrutiny by those who are. So setting those numbers aside, as I see it, the problem is (at least) two-fold:

  • our expectations in an increasingly competitive society, and
  • the prevalence of prescription drug abuse, with easy access of these meds to our kids.

While we might dismiss the former as “just the way it is,” the latter has far-reaching consequences not the least of which is the way these drugs alter an adolescent’s brain chemistry.

Pills, Pressures, and Parental Responsibility

So I ask again – how would a parent know? How does our vigilance for the usual suspects – alcohol or other illegal substances – allow this particular sort of abuse to slip through the cracks? Is it simply not on our radar? And if it were,  would we be as complicit in turning away as we are to the shared pot of coffee at midnight, as the adolescent pulls another all-nighter to complete college apps, or prior to a major exam?

I’ve expressed my views that perhaps not , or at the very least we might consider letting our teenagers take more time in making choices.

Admittedly, that’s no easy task for a parent, especially in this economy.

I’ve expressed concern over my own laser focus when it comes to academic achievement, which I passed along to my sons. I’ve second-guessed myself many times, as I sat with one of my sons through the night – as I was writing on deadline, and he was working on a project or prepping for a test.

As I down another cup of coffee to keep going, is my presence an example of work ethic – or unreasonable performance expectations in an unreasonably competitive world?

“Reasonable” Stress?

We might debate what is “reasonable” even for the adults, and I would argue that “reasonable” is a function of circumstances. As a single mother trying to pull the weight of two parents, without a salaried position and its benefits, when it comes to the hours I keep or the manner in which I work, my “reasonable” won’t be the same as that of the two-income salaried household with a more predictable income stream.

But I’m an adult. My decisions regarding my own habits include clear knowledge of my body’s rhythms, mindful adherence to healthy eating, no nicotine, very little alcohol, and virtually no drugs whatsoever other than the occasional Advil for a migraine.

But what about a high school or college student up at all hours to perform, or abusing stimulants before taking a test? Is it any wonder that when the weekend rolls around – or the summer, for that matter – that it’s followed by days on end of sleeping, with the cycle to start up again Monday morning or with the new semester?

  • In our Pill For Every Ill society, how do we get a handle on the contagion that has become our legal prescription drug use?
  • How do we stop these legal drugs from making their way into the hands (and bloodstreams) of our kids?
  • When will we address an educational system that puts increasing pressure on standardized measures of achievement, and an expectation that every student attend college? And what about the burden of cost – to get there, but less attend?
  • How many of these issues boil down to economic burdens – the drive from high school and before – to perform, perform, perform – in order to get and keep a job?