When it comes to prescription drug abuse, most of the attention has been on prescription pain relievers, such as opioids. However, there has been another category of prescription medications that have increasingly been misused, both legally and illegally. Those are the medications used for the treatment of ADHD/ADD.

It’s not just about children and young people, either. Abuse of drugs such as Concerta, Adderall and Ritalin has been on the rise among adults, as well. The increase has been alarming, but that is not the worst of it; adults are far more prone to suffering from complications and dangerous side-effects of these medications than younger people. Sometimes, it is fatal.

How bad is it? According to recent data from the Food and Drug Administration, between 2006 and 2014, the number of adults using Adderall for recreational purposes increased by nearly 300%. In Florida, the number of fatalities from overdose of ADHD/ADD drugs went up by over 450% over a six-year period. Across the country, hospitals have reported a 400% increase in emergency room admissions due to complications from these prescriptions.

Not coincidentally, drugs such as Concerta have been aggressively marketed by Big Pharma, particularly in recent years.

As recently as the mid-1990s, the diagnosis of ADHD in adults was exceedingly rare. Suddenly, in 2006, 4.4% of adults in the US – 10 million individuals – were found to have ADHD.

Seeing a golden opportunity to expand the market for ADHD medications, the pharmaceutical industry began funding its own studies and research papers. What happened next was predictable. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association expanded the definition of ADHD, reducing the adult diagnosis from six out of nine symptoms to five, and raising the age of onset from under 7 to 12.

It should come as no surprise that nearly 80% of the “experts” involved in making those changes had financial ties to Big Pharma – working primarily as advisers, speakers and consultants.

It worked out well for Big Pharma. Suddenly, the number of prescriptions for Concerta, Adderall, Ritalin and other stimulants rose dramatically. These drugs are amphetamines – “uppers” – and the temptation for abuse in a high-pressure society that makes increasing demands on the individual has led to thousands of emergency hospitalizations.

It’s not just those who have been “diagnosed,” either. Students on college campuses routinely abuse ADHD drugs in order to help them “focus” on their studies, especially around the time of finals. Additionally, many people feign having ADHD in order to obtain prescriptions. In fact, a research study published in 2010 discovered that over one-fifth of adults tested for ADD/ADHD were feigning their symptoms.

It’s a behavior that Big Pharma would like to encourage. Meanwhile, many in the profession are seriously questioning the entire idea of “adult ADHD.” There is speculation among some researchers that a number of adults diagnosed with ADHD may actually have substance abuse issues and/or mental illness, and have learned to rig the system in order to get their hands on such medications. Interestingly, adults diagnosed with ADHD get normal scores when administered neuropsychological tests. While they may exhibit symptoms, such as inability to follow through on projects, focus on tasks and keeping schedules, there is no hard evidence that such behaviors are actually ADHD.

But don’t expect Big Pharma to point that out as their executives and shareholders laugh all the way to the bank.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.