South Korean health authorities have found an unusual and disturbing trend in the use of medications for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. In the month before the national college entrance exam, the rate of diagnosis and prescription picks up markedly in the same age groups as the test-takers.
While prescriptions of ADHD drugs last year fell around 10 per cent compared to the 2011 level, the figures for 18-year-olds and 17-year-olds shot up by 64 per cent and 37 per cent, respectively, according to data from the state-run Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service.
The amount spent on medication by ADHD patients also showed a clear link to the college entrance test, which takes place in November.
Total spending on ADHD drugs peaked at 90.2 million won ($80,900) in October in 2015, a month before the exam, and significantly dropped to 58.3 million won and 55.8 million won in November and December.
ADHD is a mental disorder that prevents children from concentrating for schoolwork and results in disruptive behaviour. But those trends suggest that the ADHD drugs are being abused by students preparing for exams as study aids.
This prompted the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety to issue a public warning against possible side effects of the misguided use of the drugs.
"ADHD drugs are strictly prescription drugs and are not to be used as study aids," it said in a press release last week.
Abuse of ADHD drugs can lead to depression, hallucinations, aggressive behaviour and a strong urge to commit suicide, it stressed.
Local news outlets reported some even illegally obtain the ADHD drugs through online channels, as they cannot purchase them elsewhere without prescriptions.
The stimulant medication is used to treat ADHD as it increases levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.
There are currently 60 different ADHD drugs sold here, composed of stimulants including clonidine, methylphenidate and atomoxetine hydrochloride, according to the ministry.