Health A to Z

Children's Health: Study suggests not enough teens are prescribed Ritalin

Canadian survey shows six per cent have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, but only two per cent are getting the drug

The hyperactivity drug Ritalin has a reputation for being overused, but a Canadian study of teenagers suggests the drug is actually being under-prescribed.

Doctors prescribe Ritalin, also known as methylphenidate, for children or adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity and/or impulsivity.

“There has been a lot in the lay media for the past five to 10 years about Ritalin becoming a problem and ADHD becoming sort of a facile diagnosis that people are quick to jump to,” says Dr. Christiane Poulin, an associate professor of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

But her analysis of data from a 2002 Atlantic Canada student drug use survey suggests under- rather than over-utilization of Ritalin may be more of an issue. “In a way, we may have become reluctant to use a medication that is a very good and very tested medication, whereas in fact we should be making more recourse to it than we are.”

Of the nearly 13,000 students between the ages of 11 and 18 years who participated in the survey, six per cent scored positive on an ADHD screening test. But only two per cent of students reported using Ritalin, as prescribed by a doctor. This was backed up by data from the Nova Scotia prescription monitoring program.

Additional data showed that 6.6 per cent of students without a diagnosis of ADHD reported using Ritalin that was not prescribed by a doctor. And approximately one-quarter of students who were prescribed Ritalin gave or sold some of their medication to classmates.

Poulin says the findings suggest teenagers with unrecognized or untreated ADHD may in fact be seeking out Ritalin from other students and self-medicating, while others may be using the drug for recreational purposes. “It gives a buzz, it gives a high,” she says.

“No prescribed medication should be taken without adequate medical supervision,” Poulin adds.