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Julianna Pijar / Gavel Media

The Rise in ADHD Medication Ads on TikTok Encourages Self Diagnosis

The rapidly popular app, TikTok, has been one of the most engaging social media platforms of the last decade. Users can watch short videos about cooking, dancing, thrifting, and now, mental health. Throughout the app are teenagers giving mental health tips and helping people self-diagnose for ADHD to Tourettes. Though Tik Tok can offer a platform and community for those struggling with mental health, misinformation about these topics runs rampant. The popularity of the app also resulted in the app generating a huge amount of ad revenue. While users mindlessly scroll through the videos, the algorithm weaves ads into the feed. A popular theme of advertisements that has been spreading throughout the app has been the marketing of ADHD medication. One of the major players is Cerebral, which champions fast and easy help for mental health issues

In many Cerebral advertisements, users will use phrases like “focusing better,” “better time management,” and “less anxiety” as ways for users to be attracted to use this service. These advertising objectives blur the lines between the actual effects of medication for conditions like ADHD compared to a supplement to aid an individual in focusing. The advertisement by Cerebral emphasizes how easy it is for users to gain access to the medication through the company.

Cerebral was founded around January 2020, months before the pandemic started and months before the regulations surrounding prescribing medications also changed. Since people were unable to see prescribers in person, especially during the start of the pandemic, the Drug Enforcement Administration changed the Ryan Haight Act, a law that banned, in most situations, the prescription of controlled substances in a telehealth setting: Adderall, Klonopin, and Xanax—all addictive drugs—were also included under the list of controlled substances. The altercations to the Ryan Haight Law allowed for individuals, especially if they were uninsured or in a geographically isolated area, to still gain access to their necessary medication. However, this also allowed applications like Cerebral to go through some loopholes.

Cerebral has three sectors of services; the first service is medication plus a care counselor who may not be licensed but provides coping mechanisms and helps with mindfulness. Another service is a therapy-only service. The last service is therapy plus medicine. Additionally, the price of Cerebral is not as expensive in comparison to other alternatives. Cerebral is significantly cheaper, especially for families or individuals who don’t have insurance or those whose insurance doesn’t cover therapy. The first month of Cerebral services can be as low as $30 a month, and then after the first month, the monthly subscription can be between $85 and $325 depending on which service the user chooses. 

The advertisements can also result in lots of individuals—especially young adults who make up most of the majority of the users of TikTok— wrongly self-diagnosing themselves with conditions they may not necessarily have. According to Dr. Yamalis Diaz, a child and adolescent psychology specialist at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, these advertisements can mislead individuals into thinking that this is the only “solution” to ADHD when Diaz recommends that the first-line treatment for the condition should be behavioral therapy before trying medication.

The organization also has Simone Biles and other well-known celebrities as the faces of the organization. On the very front page of the website, there is a picture of Simone Biles and a quote that says, “I believe everyone should have access to mental health resources and Cerebral gives me the ability to personalize my mental health care experience.” Simone Biles achieved a presence in conversations about mental health when she decided to withdraw herself from the individual all-around competition in July 2021 because of her mental health. The usage of celebrities for advertising makes the service much more attractive and creates more accountability, especially if young adults are convinced that these celebrities use the same services. 

Additionally, Cerebral has been getting a lot of attention and criticism after a recent report done by Bloomberg; specifically, focusing on how the app could be triggering an even-worse addiction crisis. Chief Medical Officer David Mou says that 95% of individuals who see a Cerebral nurse should get a prescription in which users can receive a prescription in a record-breaking time of 30 minutes or less. 

This potential overprescription of these addicting drugs is allowing individuals, especially young adults, access to them even if they may not be technically qualified. Individuals can gain quick access to the medication after an assessment with a licensed nurse in less than 30 minutes. In reality, in-person assessments to gain access to medication like Adderall are a lot more thorough and time-consuming. Cerebral could be more focused on making more money than actually helping individuals' health. Nationally, the United States already has an epidemic surrounding the abusive usage of Adderall and other addictive drugs. However, the abusive usage of these addicting drugs can lead to detrimental consequences. It is imperative that we as university students and also that the university take steps to minimize and eventually stop this epidemic.