Every day in the media, there is a new breaking story about the opioid epidemic and how it is affecting Americans all across the country. But beneath the shadow of prescription painkillers, opium, and heroin lie Adderall and Ritalin, according to a new documentary on Netflix, Take Your Pills.
The film, from award-winning documentarian Alison Klayman and mother-daughter executive producer team Maria Shriver and Christina Schwarzenegger, explores the history, effects, and prevalence of these prescription cognitive enhancement drugs in modern life, especially among college students and young professionals.
“There are a lot of people diagnosed with a condition such as A.D.D. or A.D.H.H., but the reality is, on college campuses, people who don’t even have it are taking it,” Schwarzenegger told HelloGiggles. “I don’t think there is a level playing field. I don’t want to say it will continue to get worse, but because of the fear that it ignites in others when they see people who don’t have A.D.D. that are taking it, they think, ‘I’m falling behind, I’m missing out on something. I need to step up.’ So I think that everyone feels that pressure, and it kind of ups the level that is expected of you.”
HelloGiggles spoke with Shriver and Schwarzenegger over the phone about making Take Your Pills, and what kind of conversation they hope their documentary inspires in American culture.
HelloGiggles: What inspired you to want to make Take Your Pills?
Christina Schwarzenegger: This was an idea that originated based on my experience in college, in watching how widely over prescribed and abused Adderall was throughout college campuses, and also post college. Following college, I went to my mom with the idea to get more information out there, get a conversation out there, in the field of stimulant medication and how highly addicting they are. There’s not that much information on them. That’s how the two of us decided, it was just something that needed to be put out there, so we took it from there.
Maria Shriver: I think it was important that Christina had a first-hand experience seeing how many people were affected. She went to do the research and didn’t find any film like [Take Your Pills] out there. So that ignited a conversation, and I realized there was really little information and very few long-term studies. Most parents were just told, “Go ahead, put your kid on this. It will help with focus.” What they weren’t told was that Adderall is a Schedule II controlled substance, that it is highly addictive, and that when kids go off to college, they start prescribing it, getting it in larger doses, and the cycle will just continue. I think it’s filled a real void, I’m really happy with the conversation that’s exploding all over the place about the debate around it.
HG: The opioid epidemic is all over the news, but there is little public debate at the moment about the use of Adderall and other cognitive enhancement stimulants. Why did you chose this drug and this issue to focus on? One of the experts in the film said Adderall is right below the threshold of opioids — do you agree?
CS: I think that there is definitely an 100% Adderall epidemic among young adults. There’s a reason why, if you look at the statistics, there is been such a drastic increase in the amount of people who have been prescribed it and who have been using it in today’s society, versus 10 years ago. I don’t like to personally compare the two, or state if they are in relationship with one another, but the Adderall problem is definitely on the border of that.
MS: I think it is important, when we talk about the opioid crisis to think of it as really a medication crisis, right? Whether people are taking opioids, whether they’re taking antidepressants, whether they’re taking cognitive stimuli — all of this is out there in the ether, but why is it so dominate in the American society? I think that is a really big question, and I think parents have very little information. If a psychiatrists or educator comes and says, “You have a kid with A.D.H.D.,” what are your options? There is a great piece in the New York Times saying that maybe being someone with A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. is actually exactly what is needed today, because the whole society is so A.D.D. Some people have a really serious learning issue, some people really need these drugs because they need to focus and it is a serious thing. In terms of other people, they just want to compete.
HG: How should school curriculum change in such a way that Adderall and other cognitive enhancement stimulant use isn’t so commonplace? Should teachers teach actual lessons on it, confront it head on, start explaining side effects early on it? How involved should schools be in medicating or treating students, of at all?
MS: I think schools screening the film would be a great place to start. I don’t think that teachers are doctors. Teachers suggest to parents, and they go to doctors. But I think if every school in America screened this movie, I think that would be a good beginning, and I think it would give parents information that they don’t have today. I think it would show educators what is going on out there, even beyond the walls beyond their own school. If we could get everybody to see this film, I think that would be a great beginning.
HG: Do you think it would have the same effect in professional world? Should large corporations be openly talking about drug use and burnout and breakdowns?
CS: Yes, I definitely do, but I also think that is stems from the head down. I think that the more that people who are on top at different businesses and different companies can emphasize taking breaks, emphasize meditation, living a healthier lifestyle, and positively reinforce those different choices, I think the more people will feel motivated to make those lifestyle choices, rather than feeling like they constantly need to be constantly plugged in 24/7 and constantly responding 24/7. That stems from fear of losing your job, and feeling like someone is going to take it right behind you, but the more positively reinforced people can feel in their workplaces to take breaks and allow their brains or their bodies time to relax, the better off that we’ll be. Not only in business, but in society.
MS: I think we should be emphasizing that there are a lot of really successful people who didn’t do well in school, who take breaks throughout the day — great writers, great artists, successful business people. The more they could talk about perhaps different ways of working and living, and that it’s not all from six in the morning to midnight every day, constantly, that we would open a whole dialogue about what the brain needs, how the brain excels, what is the creative brain, and that there all different learning styles.
HG: You’ve thought a lot about how to fix or face this epidemic head-on, from changing the way we talk about how we learn to how we chose to succeed. You’ve already mentioned a few, but is there anything you’d like to add that you think people should be thinking about?
CS: I think it is important to realize there are people with A.D.D. or diagnosed with A.D.H.D and this film isn’t anyway intended or made to stigmatize or make anyone with the disorder feel bad. That was something I was also incredibly sensitive to, not making anyone feel bad. When you are originally diagnosed with the disorder, you don’t really feel great about yourself, when you hear something like that and you feel like something is wrong with you. I grew up like that, feeling that as well, so I think one of the main things about this film is that it is not intended to stigmatize anyone, it’s not intended to put anyone in a certain category, or to say A.D.D. is a condition that does exist and everyone has it. It is intended to open up and explore a conversation around people who don’t have it, but think that they have it now because of the pace of society.
MS: I think it is really about the race for success, the race to be the best you can be, even if that requires outside help, pharmaceutical help, to outpace somebody else. I think that that’s something we can all take a beat on. What are we doing all of this for? Why are we working at this level? Certainly, Christina has been really influential in talking to me about that, and how unnatural it is to ask somebody to sit at a desk from 7 o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock at night. No one can do that repeatedly and be living a healthy life.
HG: Was there any story in the documentary that particularly touched or moved you or made you confront the way you’re living your lives?
CS: Definitely the investment banker really touched me, in terms of looking at to what extent are you willing to take this drug, and what are you missing as a result of taking it? These are people who were living and sleeping under their desk, taking it 24/7, having a whole slew of side effects from the drugs. They are people who recognize how unhealthy that was for their life, now that there was a more meaningful life beyond all the glitz and glam of working on Wall Street. They left that in pursuit of something greater, and have been happier after that. That story really inspired me to not only look at the definition of what success means in my life and in other people’s lives, but also to what cost are we doing all this for? What are we losing as a result of working 24/7, being plugged in 24/7, needing to take Adderall 24/7? I’m really taking a step back and re-examining the way I want to live my life.
HG: What was so interesting in the film was how it look at having a prescription for Adderall as a sign of privilege. Communities who have the money and access to medical professionals have Adderall, and communities without the income or access have meth, making this an issue of race as well as class. What did you learn about prescription drugs and income and capitalism that most people probably don’t know?
MS: I think there is always a question about economic advantages. Are there clinics near you, are there therapists near you, are there psychiatrists near you? Who gets an SAT tutor and who doesn’t get an SAT tutor? I think those are economic questions, and I think the correlation between how people view meth and how people view adderall was really interesting in the film. People who take Adderall get a lot of positive feedback for how they behave on the drug, people who take meth don’t. You can see the ramifications of someone becoming a meth addict, you don’t see the ramifications of someone becoming an Adderall addict.
What to me is really interesting about the film that was surprising to me was how people said they were two different people: the Adderall person, and the non Adderall person. That to me was probably the most interesting part: when people stopped Adderall, they felt that couldn’t compete, they felt they didn’t even know who that other person was. As a parent, that was an alarming concept to me, how people give all the credit to what they view as the drug and not as themselves.
HG: Do you think there is a way or a plan we can put in place to stop the illegal sale of Adderall and prescription drugs like it?
MS: I think it’s probably a pipe dream. I think it’s up to every single person to decide how do they want to feel, what kind of life do they want to have, what are the costs of maintaining that life or working that way?
CS: I think it’s definitely a huge responsibility on campus psychiatrists who are prescribing the medication without giving any previous testing. Handing it out like candy on campus makes it way more readily and easily available. I think that with kids when they are handing it out and selling it, not much can be done to control that aspect of it.
MS: I think something can be done for parents who are the ones who have to make this initial really tough decision. I think they will be better informed, better aware of what the drug is and isn’t, they’ll be more informed that there are no long term studies. I think they’ll think twice about how they want to dispense this themselves, and if they want to dispense it.
HG: Take Your Pills was directed by a woman, and it’s amazing to see more women in film. What was that collaboration process like?
MS: It wasn’t that we said, “Oh we just want to have all women there.” It was that the best people for the job happened to be women in this situation. We interviewed a lot of people, and Christina really wanted someone who was young, who was fresh out of school, who had a cultural edge to them. Allison [director] fit that bill. It wasn’t like, “Oh we don’t want to work with men.” It just happened to be in this particular situation, the goal was to work with the best, and the best happened to be women here. It was a great collaboration all around, everybody brought something to the table, everybody did a great job with a complex subject.
HG: Who are you hoping sees this film most?
MS: Everybody. Everybody we spoke with [for the film]: parents, doctors, young professionals, you name it. As many people as possible, and we hope it ignites a conversation across gender, across socioeconomic groups, and across age groups.
Take Your Pills is now streaming on Netflix.