The topic here is prescription Adderall. Specifically: Adderall is too often prescribed badly. It has negative repercussions on individuals— and it accounts for intensifying backlash against the diagnosis itself.
Do most prescribers treating ADHD know this? No, in fact, many believe just the opposite — that Adderall is “best” for adults. That is patently false.
Whatever the complex reasons for that (I’ll touch on a few below), the important thing now is two-folder: self-educate and prepare to self-advocate. No one cares more about your or your loved one’s life than you. Being passive is extremely risky.
Poorly prescribed Adderall can create negative personality changes in people who seek only to treat their ADHD. Anxiety. Anger. Irritability. Even what looks like mania. Trouble is, they might not see this objectively. Unfortunately, their prescribers often don’t ask—or connect the dots.
You might say, “So what? Just try another medication.” I hear this from physicians who consider themselves ADHD-informed all the time. But they just don’t have their ear to the ground as I do. Moreover, for reasons I’ll explain, Adderall’s effects often mean no other stimulant will be tried.
By the way, the topic is not how to illegally obtain and abuse Adderall. If that is your goal, please read this first. It might save your life.
This is a long post. By necessity. I hope the subheads aid scanning. At the end, I’ll offer a preview of what competent prescribing for ADHD looks like. So you can help guide it.
You will find other articles on this topic ….now. Mine was first, in 2013, and the only until very recently. The only reason that’s happened is because it’s become a lucrative keyword in increasing web traffic. Not for me but commercial “health” and ADHD sites.
Let’s get this out of the way:
- Prescription Adderall works very well for some people.
- For others, Adderall create more problems than it solves.
- When it does cause problems, it can change personality to such an extent the person will not listen to others’ concerns.
You likely won’t learn from your prescriber:
- Poorly prescribed Adderall can ruin lives and relationships.
- This sometimes true for Dexedrine, too. Those of you in Australia, where the the national healthcare system (Medicare) has long considered it the stimulant of choice, be aware.
- Individuals experiencing poor results from Adderall often don’t realize it. They believe it’s the price of long-illusive focus. Their loved ones might, too—while they walk on eggshells, frightened. (Read the comments.)
- Next stop: These adults with ADHD might develop a cannabis, alcohol, or benzodiazepine habit to “come down”.
- Or: They love the intense focus too much to let go— no matter if that focus dangerously reduces self-awareness. (In other words, they assume that everyone else has the problem, not them.)
- Poorly prescribed Adderall can create or exacerbate anxiety, irritability, grandiosity, tunnel vision, and even rage.
That’s why 20 years ago I started calling it Madderall.
(Note: I’m seeing the term Madderall now appropriated to describe combining marijuana and Adderall. That’s not my definition.)
Reckless Adderall Prescribing Fuels ADHD Backlash
The truly tragic part? There are so many less risky options to try first. Prescribers should be making things better, not worse. From my perspective, this is is a long-running public health crisis. It has contributed to a backlash against the diagnosis itself.
Recent case in point: Alarming stories about “tele-health” clinics over-prescribing Adderall. became inseparable from “ADHD is over-diagnosed.” For example:
Wall Street Journal Startups Make It Easier to Get ADHD Drugs: That Made Some Workers Anxious
No doubt these venture-capital startups were cutting corners. Yet, it’s also true that COVID pushed ADHD to the fore for untold numbers of people who had been only marginally coping before. They needed care and found it wherever possible. Now news outlets and grandstanding pharmacies (CVS) conspire to make it harder to get the diagnosis and treatment—and create more backlash.
That’s a prime example of how the mis-prescribing of Adderall creates anti-ADHD stigma again and again.
Why Has This Malpractice Been Allowed?
Why do doctors too often insist on prescribing Adderall to newly diagnosed patients? Especially with so little guidance and failure to use rating scales or seek third-party reports?
Here’s one shocking reason: Many prescribers misread a meta-analysis based on old, scant (and one might say one-pharma-skewed) data. A meta-analysis is not established standard of care.
Three other reasons:
- Adderall’s manufacturer was notoriously aggressive in its marketing and fraudulent in its claims—with lasting effects
This company was fined $56.5M in 2014 for its false claims about Adderall and a few other drugs. Read more at the U.S. Department of Justice website: Shire Pharmaceuticals LLC to Pay $56.5 Million to Resolve False Claims Act Allegations Relating to Drug Marketing and Promotion Practices
2. This manufacturer has long wielded, in my observation, undue influence over most ADHD websites and personalities you see online. Unfortunately, this includes psychiatrists, psychologists, coaches, and non-profits, including board members and conference speakers and organizers. Most people would be shocked at how this one pharma covertly pushes its agenda through so many tentacles.
Please know, I’ve been openly “pro-medication” for 22 years. Medication properly chosen and prescribed, that is. This pharma’s marketing is something else entirely—and has resulted in ADHD backlash again and again.
3, Too many prescribers remain clueless, cavalier, and disconnected from consequences. I don’t say this to discourage seeking treatment! Instead, I want you to be a savvy healthcare consumer.
Yes, prescribers often have little time with a patient. That does not excuse this scandalous mess with Adderall and prescribing in general for ADHD.
Why haven’t other ADHD experts calling this out? You’d have to ask them.
Conflict of Interest: Pharma Industry Support
I was an award-winning journalist before falling into ADHD world, in 1999. As such, I naturally avoid conflict of interest. Good journalists know that even accepting a free lunch is a slippery slope.
My “pro-medication” stance was exceedingly rare at that time. The “ADHD Gift” campaign was going full throttle. My taking Pharma support clearly would muddy this position.
(Weirdly enough, that pharma has been the major actor in promoting the ADHD Gift propaganda. Even weirder, some ADHD Gift adherents lambasted me as a “pharma shill” and “pharma wh*re”. Suffice it to say, the “ADHD Industrial Complex” has some strange twists and turns.)
I’ve rejected all Pharma support—direct and indirect. This fact puts me squarely at odds with certain organizations, personalities, and outlets.
To be clear: Researchers receiving pharmaceutical funding is a distinctly different matter. Research validity rests on the researchers’ reputations and methods — and replication. Researchers must disclose such funding. By contrast, most proclaiming ADHD expertise online are not researchers nor do they have proper credentials.
Moreover, most “ADHD influencers” don’t even disclose this pharma support. That includes licensed psychologists and physicians. This indirect support includes public relations efforts on their behalf and being placed (forever) in prominent positions at ADHD non-profits, at “tele-conferences,” and more. The upshot: Amateurism is presented as expertise.
- Treating ADHD is not simple. It is a complex syndrome that affects individuals, not clones.
- Genetic differences among individuals affect drug response.
- Prescribing requires expertise and method. Start low, titrate slow. Rating scales. Third-party feedback. And much more.
- To further complicate matters: Adderall is also a popular drug of abuse. Yet, even the story of “Adderall Abuse” is complicated.
No Adderall-Abuse Tips in This Post
Maybe you found this article while seeking to illegally procure or “hack” Adderall. Sorry to disappoint!
Moreover, when you leave in disappointment after 5 seconds, my blog’s “bounce” rate increases. That’s a big Google-search penalty. That means my post will be less likely to turn up in search results. Especially when a slew of paid and promoted articles top the search list.
I leave it here anyway. Why? Chances are good that you actually have ADHD and are attempting to “self-medicate” it. That never ends well.
Which Search Term Brought You Here?
Mostly, readers find this post legitimately, using terms such as these (to name only a few):
- Adderall makes my spouse angry
- Can Adderall make you irritable?
- Why is Adderall making my ADHD worse?
- Depression and anxiety from Adderall?
- Anger outbursts and Adderall
- Does Adderall change your personality?
- Adderall is spiking my blood pressure?
- Why is Adderall dilating my pupils and making me look crazed?
- Irritable after Adderall
- Can Adderall cause bipolar?
- My husband started Adderall and is an angry jerk now
- Can Adderall cause aggression and sexual behaviors in the elderly?
- Why is Adderall just making me tired now, after working for 2 months?
- Adderall changed my personality
This Post Covers Five Points:
- The New York Times has a long history of anti-psychiatry reporting. This was my initial catalyst in writing this post, in 2013.
- Many prescribers (including psychiatrists) incompetently treat ADHD. This has devastating consequences.
- Why, to avoid these adverse outcomes, we might consider prescription Adderall not as a first try but rather a last-stop in stimulant medications
- The importance of consumer self-education and self-advocacy
- An excerpt from my first book’s chapters on medication
1. More ClickBait From The New York Times?
A back-channel tip came in yesterday. I steeled myself for the next anti-ADHD screed from the paper.
Many reporters seem to view ADHD as rife for an expose. We who know better see transparently traffic-boosting clickbait. As a young journalist many years ago, I was taught to respect The New York Times as an exemplar of journalism. Sadly, that is no longer true.
Make no mistake: The paper still has respectable editors, reporters, and sections. Yet, the front-page editor for several years demonstrated festering personal antipathy toward neuroscience and psychiatry. That and/or the publisher issued orders based on the website’s analytics. Any piece stigmatizing ADHD draws hordes of readers—and therefore ad dollars. For years, the ADHD community protested in comments. Then they just mostly gave up.
It’s All About the Web Traffic
Bottom line: It’s an SEO (Search-Engine-Optimization) bonanza! After leaving the paper, former Executive Editor Jill Abramson called it “publishing by the analytics.”
Google analytics, that is, that show traffic, how long a reader has read a page, where the reader went after, reader demographics, and lots more. It is now pervasive online, with virtually every news outlet, amplified in social media. That goes double for ADHD topics.
Over the years, I’ve called out the paper’s negative targeting of ADHD:
- Talking Back to The New York Times’ ADHD Myth-Mongering.
- The New York Times’ Unnatural Opinions on ADHD
- The Truth Behind “10,000 Toddlers Medicated for ADHD” – Parts 1 and 2.
This Time: More Grief—And Tiny Relief
Grief, that yet another person fell victim to prescription Adderall—and died by suicide.
Relief, that finally The New York Times’ grandstanding front page finally got something right about ADHD. Well, at least in tiny part. That is, the manner in which many prescribers treat ADHD largely resembles a giant game of “Pin the Rx on the ADDer.”
All else in the story is distortion. It wouldn’t be former sports reporter Alan Schwarz’s last apparent bid to land a Pulitzer Prize. He didn’t, and no longer works at the paper. Nor is he still a reporter. But during his reign, he and his editors inflicted immense and still reverberating damage.
Schwarz featured in a Netflix “documentary” from Maria Shriver and her daughter, Christina Schwarzenegger. It’s called Take Your Pills. It’s a one-two punch castigating Adderall and ADHD, as if they are inseparable. Because, in too many prescribers’ minds, they are. That is exactly my point. (See Netflix’s Take Your Pills: Anti-Science—and Mean)
2. Core Problem: Poor Monitoring of Prescription Adderall
In the early days of my advocacy, the early 2000s, I heard story after story repeated in my Adult ADHD monthly discussion group in Palo Alto.
I heard similar in my online group for the partners of adults with ADHD (ADHD partner). That is, they reported shocking prescribing patterns, particularly around Adderall. What was happening?
What’s Not Happening, Specifically?
To understand the essential problem, we have to start with poor prescribing protocols for ADHD overall.
—Prescribers should track response
That is, they should be using a checklist of symptoms that helps them establish a baseline and then monitor medication response—and note any side effects. Only a tiny minority do.
—Prescribers should gather reports from family or close friends
ADHD is commonly associated with poor self-observation. Typically, this improves with medication. The wrong medication, however, risks further clouding self-observation — and worse.
—Too many physicians don’t bother with either
Instead, they rely on a casual, “So, how’s it working for you?” If the patient complains of side effects, the physician often stops the Adderall and moves to Stratter, without trying any other stimulant. That’s bad medicine.
Poor Prescribing Created ADHD Backlash?
To summarize: The prescribing of any stimulant is often done badly. But the problems around Adderall appear an order of magnitude more serious.
The fact that I publicly predicted and warned about this years ago — verbally collaring this pharma’s reps at conferences, asking “why aren’t you warning prescribers?” — brings me no pleasure in being proved right. But I am just one person—without an “authoritative” MD after my name. (Google now actually penalizes this page because it’s not “reviewed” by an MD. Meanwhile, the plethora of “health” sites scrapes the bottom of the barrel for unknown MDs who will slap their “reviewed by” on the article.)
3. Prescription Adderall Works Well Sometimes
Again: For some people, prescription Adderall works well. It is the best choice for them.
Yet, prescription Adderall has a higher side-effect profile. If you’re just starting treatment, doesn’t it make sense to start with a less risky choicea? In other words, trying Adderall only after other stimulants (Ritalin, Focalin, Concerta, Vyvanse, etc.) have not proven effective.
Ideally, patients should receive a trial of both the amphetamine and methylphenidate classes, as I explain in my first book, excerpted below. There is no way to predict beforehand how you will respond to either class of stimulant. It comes down to genetics.
Oblivious to all that, many physicians routinely start new patients with Adderall—and at too high a dose. Among the people who join my groups or write to me, I’d guess it’s a whopping 90% who were started on Adderall. That is shocking.
Contributing Problems: A Larger View
The issues around prescription Adderall remain only one piece of a problematic puzzle:
— Physicians who see ADHD as a “simple condition”
“You just throw a stimulant at it!” one psychiatrist told me at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Obviously, he failed to find ADHD treatment interesting and therefore not worth his study.
(I saw him later at a presentation on Borderline Personality Disorder. Hundreds of psychiatrists, sitting on the edge of their seats, listening to dramatic stories. But not one presentation on adult ADHD, which has historically been misperceived as BPD.)
In fact, ADHD is a highly complex condition, especially when it is diagnosed later in life. Other conditions can complicate medication response. These include sleep and substance-use disorders. It also includes psychiatric conditions that are more highly associated with untreated ADHD in adults. (That is, living for years with untreated ADHD can increase incidence of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.)
— Physicians who believe in a “starting” or “average” dose
“There is no starting or average dose!” I’ve emphasized that in my lectures for years. That’s based on advice from the preeminent experts I respect most. Yet still, that seems the status quo. The trouble with this?
— Some people are slow metabolizers: an “average” dose might be too high for them.
In response to the side effects, they might give up on that medication entirely. Yet, if might be that a lower dose would work just fine.
— Some people are rapid metabolizers: an “average” dose might be far too little for them.
They “burn through it” too fast. They need a higher dose in order to get an average effect.
My scientist-husband and I wrote a 7-part series explaining metabolizing issues and more: Genetic Testing for ADHD Medications.
— Insurance reimburses poorly for psychiatric treatment
Yes, insurance companies share the blame. They do not reimburse psychiatric treatment at a rate commensurate with the kind of expertise and time required. But physicians are responsible, too, for understanding basic protocols.
Are you thinking that single-payer health insurance is the solution, think again! The very worst countries when it comes to ADHD medication options are the single-payer healthcare countries. That includes the United Kingdom and Australia. France might be worse,
UK residents wait years even for an ADHD evaluation—well before COVID.
In Australia, at least until very recently, adults cannot diagnosed if they were not already diagnosed in childhood. Very handy, as pediatric ADHD was largely ignored except in the most extreme cases. Only recently was Vyvanse approved for us within the healthcare system, with the mainstay being dexedrine. Last I heard, Concerta was available for $100-150/month. )
— ADHD impatience —want to “feel” it than objectively measure it
Let’s be frank: Some people with ADHD love Adderall because it feels like a booster rocket attached to their back.
The hard truth is, however, is this: You can’t depend on a “visceral feeling” to tell you when the medication is working. In fact, sometimes you won’t realize that the medication is working—or causing problems. But the people around you will!
Moreover, relying on that visceral feeling almost guarantees a bad end. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon. What if you’re so strung out you don’t even realize it?
Over-relying on a “booster rocket” to propel you through your day means you’re using Adderall as a performance drug, not ADHD treatment. Medication should help create more balance and self-regulation but higher-functioning also requires learning new skills and habits.
Often, patients (or their parents or partners) believe my cautions only after the fact. After all, I’m not a doctor. In other words, they write to me after the typical crash. That comes about two months into Adderall usage, in my observation.
That’s when they are completely depleted:
- Typically from exhaustion (why go to sleep when for the first time in your life you have “superhuman” focus?)
- But also perhaps due to Adderall’s unique mechanism of action, their very supply of neurotransmitters might be depleted.
— Parents’ and Loved Ones’ “Denial” of ADHD
Now we turn back to the NYT story for a moment. The story that finally prompted me to write this post, after years of warning about Adderall in my groups and public talks.
Did Richard Fee, the young man featured in the piece, truly not have ADHD, as his parents claim? Was he simply abusing Adderall as a “performance drug.” Perhaps, but the report shows no evidence of that.
Reporter Alan Schwarz repeatedly showed he lacks understanding of ADHD’s complexity. He gives lip service to ADHD as a legitimate condition—and then proceeds to rip it apart. Schwarz started as a sports reporter and, using his penchant for statistics, reported on sports concussions. His editors apparently found that qualified him as a neuroscientist — and sic’d him on ADHD.
As a former newspaper editor, I have seen the pattern: “Hot Dog” reporters who will do anything to land on the front page. (Now, online, it’s the featured story, highlighted on the website and promoted through social media.)
Schwarz rejected that ADHD sometimes had a way of “sneaking up” on people later in life. That’s when their innate intelligence and ability to get by in school without good study habits no longer are enough.
In other words, it might seem that these people are “abusing” stimulants when really they are seeking help. It might also be that they are suffering from poorly titrated and monitored prescription Adderall.
Could it be that Fee’s parents’ own denial systems came into play here? Perhaps Richard felt that at least these doctors believed him.
F. Prescribers Failing to Seek Third-Party Feedback
Please understand: Richard Fee’s parents have my deepest sympathies. It seems they truly tried to warn the physicians of what was happening to their son.
This story is not new to me. The partners of adults with ADHD try desperately to get through to the Adderall-prescribing physicians. They try explain that their partners are turning into rage-aholics. (The ADHD adults themselves seldom report increased anger and ability to their prescribers. They don’t want to lose access to their life’s long-missing focus.)
Yes, there are privacy laws. But that does not mean the prescriber cannot request such feedback—nor cannot accept it.
Did Fee have a condition such as bipolar disorder (either instead of ADHD or co-existing to it)? That is, did he have a particular vulnerability to Adderall abuse or addiction? Or, was that particular vulnerability ADHD? Perhaps he was mis-using Adderall to minimize sleep so he could study more and achieve. Thus, he compounded AHDD with sleep deprivation and amphetamine addiction? Next stop, psychosis.
We’ll never know. But I suspect that there were red flags throughout his childhood and young adulthood. And the same will be true of many others.
Rest in peace, Richard.
— Excerpt: My Book’s Chapter on Medication
Now I’ll share with you now the introduction to my first book’s chapter on medication. Please know: The last thing I want to do is scare you away from seeking treatment that can vastly elevate your life. Just the opposite! You deserve that.
Rather, I am emphasizing: We consumers must be educated, we must self-advocate.
To lack vigilance is to risk a lot. Please don’t let you or your loved one be another casualty. Don’t be passive, thinking that any licensed professional knows what’s what. No one cares more about your or your loved one’s life than you do.
Identifying ADHD symptoms and medically addressing them is not, for the most part, rocket science. It’s not even brain science. It’s step-by-step logic and observation. I teach this in Course 2 of my online training, on medication and sleep: Solving Your Adult ADHD Puzzle: Physical Strategies
Chapter 21: RX Treatment Results That Last
It took Alex two grueling years to convince his wife to seek an evaluation and then treatment for her diagnosis of ADHD.
“Now, who knows how long it will take me to convince her to ditch this psychiatrist, who refuses for no logical reason to prescribe stimulants and find one who actually understands ADHD,” he complains. “My wife is skeptical that I or this support group could know something her psychiatrist doesn’t. But trust me, it’s alarming how little this guy knows.”
Looking back, Alex wishes they’d been far more careful in selecting a physician.
In Jeanette’s case, the irony is that she never found her husband’s ADHD a problem—until after he started medical treatment for it.
“I used to go to bed at night thinking I’m the luckiest wife in the world,” she recalls. “Yes, Mike is lousy at paperwork and he doesn’t remember to take out the garbage (or what day it’s collected!). But he is fun, very goodhearted, and rarely gets angry, and loves being with me and the children.”
Then It All Changed
All that changed soon after Mike learned that he might have ADHD and decided to do something about it. He had recognized in himself the traits he didn’t like in his father. That included poor follow-through on promises. He wanted to do a better job with his own family. “His attitude was, ‘If treatment can help me to be a better person, why not?” Jeanette recalls.
Unfortunately, Mike’s personality changed completely after starting medication.
“I went from this perfect marriage to hating my life and being ready to leave him. The worst part was that he didn’t realize that things were getting worse, especially the anger, until we were in major trouble. As far as he was concerned, his focus was better so that was great. But in reality, his focus was unrelenting.”
Jeanette found the support group’s feedback critical to realizing what was happening. He was probably either on the wrong type of stimulant medication or at too high a dosage. She also learned how to find a more qualified physician and, more importantly, convince Frank that he was turning into a father far worse than his own.
Such stories are way too common for the support group’s comfort.
How Do We Navigate This?
Sure, we want to place our faith in our physicians. Yet, one troubling fact remains. Many physicians, including psychiatrists, are poorly trained to treat Adult ADHD. Some know that and respect their limitations. Some don’t.
It’s important that yo know this going in. Smart ADHD healthcare consumers can avoid common pitfalls and come out a success story.
“My message to those embarking on this journey,” Jeanette says, “is don’t be afraid of medication; it can bring great changes. Just be aware.”
Please know that, prescribing for ADHD is a straightforward issue. In fact, ADHD Partner Survey respondents report that when their partner started taking medication, symptoms improved significantly within:
- Hours (15 percent)
- Days (39 percent)
- Weeks (19 percent)
As Jeanette learned, however, the initial “promise” of medications to smooth out the ADHD roller coaster can soon peter out. Support-group members have agonized over this phenomenon for years.
How These Chapters Can Help
The book’s three chapters on medication will support you and/or your partner in creating your own success story by helping you to:
- Avoid common pitfalls that lead to low treatment adherence.
- Understand that goal setting forms the foundation of successful medication treatment.
- Remember that each person has a unique biochemistry — no cookie cutters!
- Recognize that finding the best medication regiment requires a methodical process.
- Know that ADHD commonly coexists with other conditions, which must be considered in any treatment plan.
If you are familiar with this guidelines, you can better recognize competent care when you encounter it. And when you don’t encounter it? You can either keep moving or, if your choices are few, diplomatically help it along.
For More Information
—Other posts related to ADHD medications:
Visit ADHD Roller Coaster’s Medications category of posts
—My first book: Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?
—My NEW Course on ADHD Medications and Sleep: Solving Your Adult ADHD Puzzle — Physical Strategies
—I welcome your comments.
The first version of this post appeared in 2013.