A New Documentary About Adults On Adderall — And Not Just For ADHD

Mar 15, 2018
Originally published on March 15, 2018 10:05 pm

Stimulant drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are commonly prescribed to kids with what's known as ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But recently, adults became the biggest users of these drugs.

That's partially because more adults are being diagnosed with ADHD for the first time. But the new Netflix documentary Take Your Pills focuses on the use of these drugs to boost cognitive performance in college classrooms and the workplace.

"What the film really looks at is really: What do these pills promise, and what do people desire?" says director Alison Klayman. "And these drugs are associated with keeping better focus — it's better attention, it's better productivity — in this moment when people are all really feeling squeezed, feeling pressure to perform."

Klayman, a former All Things Considered intern and now a filmmaker, spoke with us from NPR's studios in New York City.


Interview Highlights

On what Klayman generally heard from adult users of these drugs

There were at least two different camps. There are some adults who were using it since high school and even earlier. And then there were some who found it for the first time as an adult. And there was a cycle that people go through where at first, it seems like something that's jet fuel that gets you everything you want. And slowly, people report needing more and more — higher doses in order to keep the efficacy. And then, people report different side effects, and also kind of an identity issue — of wondering, you know, is it correct that I am associating my success with a need for this as a tool, as a supplement? I think for people who grew up on the medication, a lot of the people that we talked to — and we talked to well over 100 people — they want to see if they can go off of it.

On the reasons interview subjects cited for taking these pills

Sometimes it's because they feel like everyone else is doing it — that was the experience of the anonymous worker from Goldman Sachs. Same thing in coding — that's another environment where it's expected that you're going to do these long runs. [The coder in the film] describes the first time he took it was 1 a.m., given to him by another person at this coding bootcamp. It's a big thing for high-functioning and successful people in America.

On the cited research suggesting that these drugs don't actually improve cognitive performance, but do make people feel as if they're performing better

While we were shooting the film, people who use Adderall, Ritalin, these drugs regularly — I was surprised how many young people would say, "So, you're working on this film — does it work?" ... I think they could tell it was doing something, but again this identity question of: How much is me, how much is the drug and how much is it really helping?

And what's amazing is that one of the effects of Adderall — which is, you know, amphetamine, mixed amphetamine — is that it makes you feel like you are doing better. But the idea that these are "smart pills" or that they're cognitive enhancers is a little bit misguided.

On potential harm in the widespread use of these stimulants, whether long-term or otherwise

I think the harm that is most urgent, that applies to the most people, is what the film focuses on, which is a little bit more of the identity questions of, you know: What is lost if we are all in an Adderall world? What does it mean to feel like you need it to succeed? It's just — it's true, we don't know what the impact is. And that's part of the reason why I see this film as a real conversation starter. Is this the kind of world we want to live in? And then we'll continue to do research from there.

Denise Guerra and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are commonly prescribed to kids with what's known as ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But recently, adults became the biggest users of these drugs. The new Netflix documentary "Take Your Pills" looks at the pervasiveness of these drugs in college classrooms and the workplace.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUMENTARY, "TAKE YOUR PILLS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Every generation has found a different way to try to enhance their performance. Now, in this case, it has been ADHD drugs. This ain't new.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's not like a glass of wine or a joint or any way that people use to decompress. I really see it as a supplement, as a tool.

MCCAMMON: Director Alison Klayman joins me from our NPR studios in New York. Welcome to the program.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Thanks, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So we're all familiar with children being prescribed ADHD drugs. Why are so many adults using them now?

KLAYMAN: I think there was a time when attention deficit disorder and ADHD were seen as something that kind of went away as you got older, and increasingly there's adults being diagnosed for the first time. But what the film really looks at, more than just the system - these medical systems is really, what do these pills promise and what do people kind of desire that is making it seem appealing? And, you know, these drugs are associated with keeping better focus. It's, you know, better attention. It's better productivity in this moment where, you know, people are all really feeling squeezed, feeling pressure to perform.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. We hear a lot from people in your film who are using these drugs for that reason. A lot of them are college students. Some are working adults. I want to play a couple clips from the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUMENTARY, "TAKE YOUR PILLS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I have friends that have gotten to the point where they can't really do work without taking Adderall. You get used to it and then you can't do work without it. You can't be productive. I've seen that happen to people.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TAKE YOUR PILLS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Adderall definitely does help me be a better capitalist. When I'm on Adderall, I'm here to solve problems.

MCCAMMON: Alison Klayman, what did you hear from adults who are relying on these drugs?

KLAYMAN: There were at least two different kinds of camps. There are some adults who were using it since high school and even earlier. And then there were some who found it for the first time as an adult. And there was this sort of cycle that people go through where at first it seems like something that's jet fuel, that kind of gets you everything you want. And slowly, people reported needing more and more higher doses in order to keep the efficacy. And also kind of an identity issue of wondering, you know, is it correct that I am associating my success with a need for this as a tool, as a supplement? I think for people who grew up on the medication, a lot of the people that we talked to - and we talked to well over a hundred people - they want to see if they can go off of it.

MCCAMMON: The film talks about the fact that there's research that suggests that for many people, these drugs don't actually make them perform better but they make them feel they perform better. What did the people you talked to say about how these drugs actually, you know, affect their output, their productivity at work or school?

KLAYMAN: While we were shooting the film, you know, people who use Adderall, Ritalin, these drugs regularly - I was surprised how many young people would say, so you're working on this film. Does it work? Like, it's something that...

MCCAMMON: They were asking you?

KLAYMAN: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: And they're the ones taking the drug?

KLAYMAN: (Laughter) Yeah. And I think that they could tell it was doing something. But again, this identity question of how much is me, how much is the drug, and how much is it really helping - it seems like the study that's talked about in the film...

MCCAMMON: And which study was that?

KLAYMAN: This is Dr. Martha Farah's study at UPenn. It was done in the 2000s. And what's amazing is that one of the effects of Adderall, which is amphetamine - mixed amphetamine - is that it makes you feel like you are doing better. But the idea that these are smart pills or that they're cognitive enhancers is a little bit misguided.

MCCAMMON: You know, you could come away with this film with kind of mixed feelings. On the one hand, a lot of people don't like to think that they need something, that they need a drug to ace a test or finish a work project. On the other, it isn't clear what long-term harm these pills do to most people. You know, unless you have a serious medical condition, they're rarely deadly, unlike things like opioids. What harm do you see here?

KLAYMAN: I think the harm that is maybe most urgent, that applies to the most people, is what the film focuses on, which is a little bit more of the identity questions of, you know, what is lost if we are all in an Adderall world. What does it mean to feel like you need it to succeed? From my reporting, that seems like the most widespread, applicable sort of risk and question that needed to be discussed more in the open.

MCCAMMON: Director Alison Klayman - her new documentary, "Take Your Pills," is out tomorrow on Netflix. Thank you.

KLAYMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.