All Jennifer Howell wanted was to find medication for her son. Instead, she was caught in a maze of desperate phone calls to pharmacies and physicians.
Her son, Linus, had been diagnosed with ADHD in 2021 during the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of his behavioral traits — restlessness, impulsivity, difficulty focusing — suddenly made sense. When he was first prescribed medication, its effects were instantaneous.
“It was something that changed him within 24 hours,” said Howell, a Lincoln Square resident. “It was enough for us to cry, saying, ‘Oh God, I wish we had known.’”
Howell recalled how Linus, now 10 years old, described how he felt: “When my neurons are working, I’m basically a genius.”
The relief was short-lived. In October 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally announced a nationwide Adderall shortage, leaving millions scrambling to obtain prescription stimulant medication. Over a year later, there’s no end in sight, and a tangled network of causes has made for no clear solution.
“It’s the single biggest crisis right now in clinical mental health,” said Greg Mattingly, president of the American Professional Society of ADHD and Related Disorders and an associate clinical professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “It touches everyone.”
ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in the U.S. An estimated 9.8% of children aged 3 to 17, or about 6 million adolescents, have been diagnosed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Stimulant medications like Adderall mitigate its symptoms by increasing dopamine levels in the brain.
Access to prescription stimulant medications first began to unravel at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Physicians started reporting a significant jump in ADHD diagnoses. Research compiled by FDA-affiliated scholars indicated that prescriptions for stimulant medications among people aged 20 to 29 rose 30% from April 2018 to March 2022. There are multiple theories on why that’s the case, including the ease of telehealth, increased ADHD awareness and the added stressors of remote work, experts say.
“There’s some suspicion that working virtually seemed to really challenge individuals who had ADHD,” said Julie Carbray, a clinical professor of psychiatry and nursing at the University of Illinois Chicago. “Along with that was the recognition that ADHD can be diagnosed in adulthood, which is sort of a newer concept.”
Meanwhile, a major drugmaker began to experience an Adderall manufacturing delay, according to the FDA. When patients turned to alternative prescription stimulant medications, those too became scarce. Although the manufacturing delay has since been resolved, its long-lasting effects are exacerbated by unprecedented demand. Many pharmacies nationwide still have unpredictable inventory.
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