Alarm for the increase in the number of teenagers addicted to “smart drugs”.

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A record number of students and schoolchildren are being treated for addiction to stimulant ‘smart drugs’ that put them at risk for severe anxiety and insomnia, experts have warned.

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UK Addiction Treatment Group (UKAT), a leading addiction clinic, has responded to calls from thousands of young people seeking help after becoming addicted to tablet computers.

Smart drugs are an umbrella term for a number of concentration-enhancing drugs, including Ritalin, also known as methylphenidate, and Adderall, which contains four types of amphetamines. Both are used to treat the mental health condition attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by increasing activity in areas of the brain that help control attention and behavior.

However, they can increase energy and focus in people who don’t have ADHD, which is why they are often used by students, particularly during exams.

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Doctors warn children are handing out these smart drugs to friends at school and have urged policymakers to tighten regulations that currently allow private clinics to prescribe the powerful drugs without a face-to-face consultation.

Drug counselors said anxious students contacted them after becoming addicted to smart drugs to cope with the stress of studying for exams

Drug counselors said anxious students contacted them after becoming addicted to smart drugs to cope with the stress of studying for exams

When taken as recommended, these drugs are not addictive. But many abusers take significantly larger doses or crush the pills and snort them, making them more potent. When taken this way, the drug can be addictive, while also increasing the risk of triggering sleep problems, anxiety, and even heart damage.

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UKAT has seen an almost 80% increase in requests for help from students and young professionals addicted to smart drugs compared to before the Covid pandemic.

Studies show that the number of prescriptions for ADHD medications has increased nearly 70% since 2020 as a record number of people have been diagnosed with the disorder. While many will have a real need, experts believe this increase in ADHD is also being driven by private clinics that are overdiagnosing the condition.

As a result, there have also been intermittent shortages of some of these drugs, meaning those in need have been unable to get vital care.

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Doctors have warned that students have been passing smart drugs to their friends at school

Doctors have warned that students have been passing smart drugs to their friends at school

“It’s concerning how easy it is for children to get their hands on these pills,” says Dr Mateen Durrani, a clinical psychiatrist at UKAT. “They’re often given out at school by kids who have prescriptions.”

Overuse of ADHD medication is not a new phenomenon, a survey conducted in 2020 found that around six per cent of UK university students had taken it to help them study.

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Some experts believe that the sharp increase in cases of smart drug addiction is linked to the Covid pandemic, which has drastically reduced the time many students have spent face-to-face with teachers and has also led to the cancellation of exams. Now, they argue, these students are turning to drugs to help them perform.

“Since the pandemic, there’s been a lot of pressure on students to make up the learning they’ve lost,” says Dr. Durani. “But what often happens is that they will keep taking larger and larger amounts of these pills to maximize their concentration until they get hooked on the effect it has on the brain.”

Last month, a BBC investigation raised concerns that some private clinics were misdiagnosing people with ADHD and offering them medication without meeting them face-to-face. Some experts believe this relaxed approach to prescribing such strong pills could be linked to increasing addictions.

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“There has been a massive increase in prescriptions since the pandemic,” says Professor Philip Asherson, professor emeritus of neurodevelopmental psychiatry at King’s College London. “It’s possible that this has led to the pills becoming more available in schools.”

Dr. Durrani agrees: “There is clearly very little regulation in the industry, and one of the impacts is that children are abusing drugs.”

But according to Dr. Durrani, such an addiction is treatable.

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“We give patients a low-dose tranquilizer to combat the anxiety and agitation they often feel when they stop taking large doses of these drugs,” she says.

The need to address this issue is clear. In the short term, stimulants can trigger nausea, decreased appetite, sleep disturbances, and anxiety. It has also been linked to the condition Raynaud’s circulation, which causes fingers and toes to turn white or blue, as well as causing pain and numbness in the joints. But the pills can also raise blood pressure and heart rate. Experts say this could have dangerous long-term consequences.

“The long-term impacts of methylphenidate abuse are unclear because it’s still relatively new,” says Professor Asherson. “But taking very large amounts of this drug increases your risk of heart problems later in life.”

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