The Safety Myth: Ritalin Addiction Can Produce Long-Term Neurological Damage

My first exposure to Ritalin was in high school. I was sitting in my friend Kelly’s bedroom watching her cut up white powder into neat lines with her library card and I remember asking her where she found cocaine. We were not savvy kids with connections to illicit drug dealers—we were studious, overachieving, and perhaps unusually naïve teenagers whose forays into the world of mind-altering substances had thus far primarily been confined to a few bottles of Zima and bungled attempts at rolling poorly structured joints. But the white powder wasn’t cocaine, it was Ritalin, and the only connection its procurement had required was Kelly’s friendship with a kid who had an ADHD diagnosis. “It’s not dangerous, people use it to study,” she reassured me before rolling up a $5 bill her mom had given her for lunch money and snorting up the crushed tablets.

The Myth of Safety


It’s been 20 years since that afternoon in the quiet suburbs of Chicago, and while both legitimate and illicit Ritalin use have exploded, the myth that it is not dangerous persists. In fact, even people who do not use recreational drugs for fear of health and safety risks are increasingly turning to Ritalin as a performance enhancer due to its ability to improve cognitive function and concentration. The problem is particularly widespread amongst young people who have grown up in an environment in which illicit Ritalin use is normalized, accessible, and free from the stigma of street drugs. One study found that nearly 20% of Ivy League university students use ADHD drugs without a prescription to improve academic performance, and that most regard it as a benign way to cope with the heavy workload and expectations of high achievement.[1. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/03/college-students-adhd-cheating/8480637/?siteID=je6NUbpObpQ-xPL.rwte50H8HdeIY7tlig] However, the mechanisms that make Ritalin so effective as a performance enhancer are also the mechanisms that make it both addictive and dangerous; the drug works in a way that is similar to cocaine by acting on the brain’s reward system and producing a burst of dopamine release. Over time, you can become both psychologically and physically dependent on this chemical effect, to the detriment of your emotional and neurological health. As one former addict notes, “The more you use it, the more you want to use more of it. It takes away your own coping skills and your ability to evolve your own study skills and work ethic.”[2. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100254163]

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The Long-Term Implications of Ritalin Addiction


While short-term effects such as anxiety, agitation, insomnia, and nausea are well recognized, until recently, Ritalin was not thought to produce significant long-term issues due to its short-acting nature. However, recent research suggests that Ritalin is much more destructive than previously realized. A 2009 study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that Ritalin can produce physical neurological changes and have “structural and biochemical effects in some regions of the brain that can be even greater than those of cocaine.”[3. http://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nida-study-shows-methylphenidate-ritalin-causes-neuronal-changes-brain-reward-areas] Another study led by Prof. Joan Baizer of the University of Buffalo “suggests that Ritalin has the potential for causing long-lasting changes in brain cell structure and function.”[4. https://www.thefix.com/content/research-shows-ritalin-causes-long-term-brain-injury] More specifically, the drug can lead to mental health disorders such as depression, as well as frontal lobe brain injury, which can damage impulse-control and emotional regulation. Research published in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience also indicates that Ritalin “can affect the brain’s plasticity, negatively impacting people’s ability to switch between tasks, be flexible in their overall behaviors, and plan ahead,” as well as impairing memory formation and “complex learning abilities.”[5. https://www.thefix.com/content/adhd-drugs-could-have-long-term-consequences-memory]

The Heightened Dangers of Recreational Use


Along with Ritalin’s cognitive function and concentration enhancements, it can also produce feelings of euphoria, exhilaration, and increased energy depending on dosage and method of use. For some, the experience is similar to or even preferable to cocaine. Recreational users who ingest high doses, snort, or inject the drug to achieve a more intense high are even more vulnerable to the addictive qualities and dangers of Ritalin, including paranoia, aggressive behavior, hallucinations, cardiac events, suicidal ideation, and even death.

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Healing from Ritalin Addiction


The first step to breaking the cycle of Ritalin addiction is addressing your physical dependency. Medically supervised detox provides an ideal environment in which to begin the process of cleansing your body of the drug safely and comfortably. However, the withdrawal process is only the beginning of the journey to restore emotional and somatic stability. In order to fully disrupt the addictive drive, it is imperative to examine the underlying psychological and experiential conditions that led to your addiction, identify any co-occurring mental health disorders, and develop the skills to fulfill your needs without resorting to drug use. Through an innovative and effective treatment program that combines individual therapy, therapy groups, and holistic therapies, you can discover both the roots of your addiction and gain the emotional and behavioral stability to recover from it. Healing is within reach, and with the support of a warm, welcoming recovery community, you can overcome Ritalin addiction and let your authentic self flourish.

Alta Mira offers the highest level of residential treatment for people living with Ritalin addiction. Contact us for more information about our program and how we can help you or your loved one on the path to recovery.