Ritalin is the brand name for methylphenidate, a prescription stimulant that has been used to treat the symptoms narcolepsy and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) for more than 50 years.
For decades, Ritalin was the most commonly used drug for treating ADHD, and it continues to be prescribed today, although it has been largely supplanted by medications like Adderall and Vyvanse.
Similarly, while Ritalin has seen a significant amount of recreational misuse and abuse over the years, recently, the rate of Ritalin abuse has dropped and been overshadowed by Adderall, the “study drug” of choice for abuse among college students.
As the dangers of Adderall become more widely known, Ritalin, in turn, becomes perceived as the “safe” drug that can be abused without the same potential for addiction and overdose as Adderall.
But anyone who thinks they can abuse Ritalin without consequences is sorely mistaken. Just like Adderall, when Ritalin is misused, it can be incredibly addictive and just as easy to overdose on fatally.
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Both Ritalin and Adderall are central nervous stimulants, which means they boost the levels of two neurotransmitters called dopamine and norepinephrine. However, since Adderall is an amphetamine and Ritalin is not, they do this in different ways.
Adderall binds with the brain’s dopamine and norepinephrine receptors to activate them into overproduction and flood the brain and nervous system with the two chemicals. Ritalin increases dopamine and norepinephrine by blocking a process called “reuptake.”
Normally, after the brain releases a certain amount of neurotransmitters and they are no longer needed, they are reabsorbed for later as part of reuptake, which controls how much of a neurotransmitter remains in the brain and central nervous system and how long it stays there.
Ritalin blocks this process for dopamine and norepinephrine, allowing them to build up in the synapses instead. Increased norepinephrine speeds up brain activity, making the user more alert and focused, while the extra dopamine, a chemical that is most active in what is referred to as the brain’s “pleasure center,” provides a small amount of euphoria as a reward to create motivation for the brain to focus on a task.
For people with ADHD who have lower levels of dopamine or faulty receptors, this helps them remain focused. For people with normal dopamine and norepinephrine levels, however, it can provide an energizing and euphoric high.
Because Ritalin is a fast-acting drug, when it is crushed and snorted, it acts much like cocaine, providing a rapid, almost instant high. It also disappears about as quickly as a cocaine high, which can increase the risk of an overdose as someone will take larger amounts of Ritalin at once for a longer high.
When it comes to prescription medication, recognizing the signs of substance abuse before it progresses to addiction can be difficult. Abnormal behaviors and physical and mental changes can seem obvious in retrospect, but they often go unnoticed at the time.
Many people are also less likely to suspect that someone may be abusing or becoming dependent on Ritalin for the simple reason that it would not occur to them because of the perception of Ritalin as a safe drug, especially when compared to Adderall.
However, regular, excessive use of Ritalin does not come without side effects. Common signs that someone has been engaging in long-term Ritalin abuse include:
The transition of Ritalin misuse and abuse to dependence and addiction is marked by the individual completely losing the ability to control their usage and abusing Ritalin compulsively. Obtaining and using Ritalin becomes the top priority in their lives and the driving force behind the majority of their actions and decision-making.
At this point, they will begin to exhibit atypical behaviors consistent with someone suffering from a substance use disorder, neglecting relationships, responsibilities, and their own health and well-being in favor of using Ritalin.
If you have seen these signs manifesting in someone you care about or are experiencing them in your own behavior, it is vital that the next step is getting help from professional addiction services to avoid an overdose as well as any further physical or psychological damage.
The first step in Ritalin addiction treatment is supervised medical detoxification to remove Ritalin from someone’s system and get them sober and stabilized. On the spectrum of stimulant withdrawal, Ritalin is milder than its more potent counterparts and generally not a life-threatening process.
Depending on the severity of someone’s addiction and their overall health, they will likely be able to detox on an outpatient basis. However, this does not mean that a Ritalin detox should be attempted alone without a medical professional to monitor the process.
Even as a milder stimulant, Ritalin withdrawal symptoms are primarily mood-based and often include extreme mood swings and intense feelings of depression, as well as suicidal thoughts and behavior. Psychological support at a medical detox center during Ritalin withdrawal can be critical to avoiding potential self-harm or relapse.
After the withdrawal symptoms have run their course and detox has been completed, the next phase of Ritalin addiction treatment is to enter an addiction recovery treatment program.
Following up detox with aftercare is crucial to being able to maintain sobriety for any significant period.
During their recovery, which can be carried out in either an inpatient oroutpatient program, the client will take part in different treatment types and therapies that will help them understand the issues at the root of their Ritalin addiction, as well as provide them with the tools to manage their addictive behaviors once treatment has ended.
Typically, a client will work with their therapist or clinician to design a treatment plan that is best suited to their specific needs, although it will usually involve at least some of the standard recovery therapies, including individual and group counseling, behavioral therapy, medication management, relapse prevention planning, and more.
Despite the fact that Ritalin is perceived as a relatively safer drug when compared to other stimulants, there still are many serious dangers associated with Ritalin abuse and addiction. As a stimulant, Ritalin is often used in conjunction with alcohol so that the user can drink more without feeling as much of the effects, which significantly increases the risk of alcohol poisoning.
Ritalin abuse also puts the heart under an excessive amount of strain, which could lead to major health problems like high blood pressure, arrhythmia, and even a heart attack or stroke, which can be triggered by a Ritalin overdose and easily prove fatal.
If you see someone exhibiting these symptoms, you should get them emergency medical attention as soon as possible to avoid a fatal overdose as well as permanent organ damage.
Morris, S. Y. (2016, July). Adderall vs. Ritalin: What's the Difference? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/adderall-vs-ritalin
Morton, W. A., & Stockton, G. G. (2000, October). Methylphenidate Abuse and Psychiatric Side Effects. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC181133/
The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. (2018, July). Monitoring The Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use. Retrieved from http://www.monitoringthefuture.org//pubs/monographs/mtf-vol2_2017.pdf