'It's a snapshot of America in this moment' – behind the Netflix film on Adderall abuse
While the government focuses on opioid addiction, Take Your Pills serves as a cautionary reminder that a drug intended for those with ADHD is still causing problems nationwide
The role Adderall plays in driving America, and Americans, is put under the spotlight in a new Netflix documentary launching this week.
In Take Your Pills, Alison Klayman, best known for her 2012 film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, explores the pressures that drive some people to use Adderall to improve grades and performance.
The film, executive produced by Maria Shriver and Christine Schwarzenegger, brings together an array of users from across different industries and backgrounds. Adderall, a stimulant intended to combat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is only available by prescription, but the majority of subjects in Take Your Pills have found ways around that, and use it for different reasons.
There are students who use it to study harder in college. A guy who works in finance who takes it to work longer hours and make more money. A music agent who says it gives him more pep and ability to deal with clients.
“I started to learn about good friends of mine and their personal experiences with taking stimulants,” Klayman told the Guardian. “The good, the bad, but really how much it was a part of their identity. And it just really surprised me that it wasn’t something that you never heard talked about before. To me, that was a sign that there’s you know there’s something important to explore here.”
America is currently in the midst of another drug crisis – the country’s opioid epidemic killed 42,000 people in 2016. Between July 2016 and September 2017, the number of people admitted to hospital for suspected opioid overdoses increased by 30%, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two states – Wisconsin and Delaware – saw increases of more than 100%.
With most of the public and government’s attention on opioids, the focus has been drawn away from Adderall abuse. But Take Your Pills, which Klayman began working on in mid-2016, shows that Adderall – best known for being taken by college students as a way to increase last-minute exam prep time – is as prevalent as ever.
Klayman said she was drawn to the project as a way of exploring what people’s devotion to the drug could reveal about America at large.
“It’s the question of why this is so popular right now, and what that says,” she said. “What does it give people, and why are we looking for that? To me, it’s a personal human story that can reveal something that’s pretty big about our society.”
The experience of the students Klayman interviewed might not be incredibly surprising to anyone who has studied at an American university in the past decade, where Adderall is, in some cases, almost used as a study aid. But to those who haven’t had that experience, the matter-of-fact way that Klayman’s subjects discuss taking the drug to improve their grades is shocking.
“When I was in college people did drugs to check out, and now they do drugs to check in,” Anjan Chatterjee, the chair of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Klayman in the film.
It’s a pithy way of putting it, and the point is emphasised by the way some of the students talk about it, almost as if in awe of its grade-improving powers, swearing by its ability to transform Bs into As.
Klayman says the desire for success that drives some people to seek these kind of performance enhancers is “particularly American, and particularly late-stage capitalist”. It lends itself to her idea that Take Your Pills reflects the state of the nation.
“I definitely think it’s a snapshot of America in this moment,” she said. “It’s not just about Adderall or stimulants, you know. It really feels like this is something about right now.”
For Klayman, there are the distractions that come with social media and instant access to the internet – “society as a whole has ADD now”, a man in the documentary says – but also the problems with the US healthcare industry, where doctors are quick to prescribe drugs. Take Your Pills hints at that wider issue, but Klayman said it deliberately doesn’t entirely focus on the pharmaceutical industry.
“This isn’t really a movie about pharma or individual bad-actor doctors, although that’s obviously in the background,” she said. “This is a film about Adderall and that desire that competitive edge that desire to be and how to succeed to be the best.”
The larger point that Klayman wants to make is how that intense desire to succeed reveals just how hard it is to actually succeed in the US – how the larger workings of the country are affecting individuals.
Numerous studies have found that social mobility has decreased over the past thirty years, while in the US – like other countries in the world – a fraction of the population owns vast amounts of its wealth.
“This film is absolutely about inequality,” Klayman said. “Because it’s situated in an incredibly unequal society. It’s not that the drugs make things unequal or unfair.
“It’s a symptom. It’s like the larger system manifesting itself.”
- Take Your Pills launches on Netflix on 16 March