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Dad's word of warning: Adderall 'changed' my son

Richard Fee was an athlete with a full scholarship to college when he fell into a spiral of Adderall addiction after the stimulant, frequently used in treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was prescribed to him by a psychiatrist. His family talks about how their repeated attempts to stop the prescriptions were ignored until Richard committed suicide, and NBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman discusses the dangers of Adderall.

Richard Fee was on a path to success and seemed to have great potential. He was intelligent and athletic, earned a full scholarship to college and had his sights on medical school.

But after returning home to live with his family in Virginia after college in 2009, his parents say they learned he had become addicted to prescription medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition his parents say he never had.

Richard’s story, profiled in Sunday’s New York Times, shows a 24-year-old man who continually lied to doctors to abuse Adderall and Vyvanse, another medication used for ADHD symptoms, ultimately suffering a psychiatric breakdown that hospitalized him for a week. In November 2011, he hanged himself in a bedroom closet.

Richard’s parents, Rick and Kathy Fee, appeared on TODAY Thursday, describing how hard it was to watch their son suffer with addiction. After low scores on the medical college admissions test, his parents say Richard took increasingly higher doses, he began to suffer mood swings, insomnia, delusions and paranoia, leading the Fees to lock their bedroom door at night in fear.

“It was tough to watch him go through that,” Rick Fee told Matt Lauer. “It changed him from the person that he was to what he became.”

The Fees tried to talk to their son’s doctors to get the prescriptions stopped, to no avail.

“I believe the doctors share in the responsibility,” Rick Fee said of his son’s death in a taped segment for TODAY.

New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz, who first reported the story, told TODAY: “It wasn’t the medication that did the harm here; it was the people in charge of the medication.”

Two of Richard’s psychiatrists who prescribed Adderall declined to appear on TODAY, but one of them, Dr. Waldo Ellison, released a statement saying, “I am saddened, not as much as they are, by the death of their son. He was a wonderful young man.”

Dr. Charles Parker, another of Richard’s psychiatrists, noted depression, anxiety and suicidal ideas according to the Times. Despite the family’s plea to Parker not to prescribe ADHD pills to Richard, Parker told the newspaper Richard persuaded him of his need for the  medication. “He was pitching me very well. I was asking him very specific questions, and he was very good at telling me the answers in a very specific way,” Parker told the newspaper.

While Adderall and other ADHD medications can help people with ADHD to focus, a growing number of teens and young adults are faking the symptoms to get prescriptions for the amphetamine-based drug, the newspaper reported.

When Richard first moved home to study for the medical school entrance exam, his family learned that he was taking the medication, and had been for about a year.

“When he told me, I said, ‘You don’t have ADHD. Why are you taking it?,” said his sister, Ryan. “He said, ‘It helps me study.’”

The young man’s parents said he had never been diagnosed with ADHD, or had any problems in school.

“From the research that I have done, when it shows up in adults there’s usually signs in early childhood,” Rick Fee told Lauer. “And there were no signs through elementary school, though middle school or high school.”

The Fees pleaded with Richard’s doctors to stop prescribing the drug. Rick Fee said one doctor refused to talk to the couple, saying that he had been sued for discussing a case with another family, “so he was worried about covering himself.”

“We just could not get any help from the doctors,” he said. “As much as we pleaded with them and told them what was going on.”

Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC News’ chief medical editor, called the situation “the downside of patient privacy.”

“It’s where doctors have to have some common sense so that when they see a child in crisis -- and even if we’re talking about a young adult, he’s still a child -- who is abusing prescription drugs, may have underlying anxieties or psychiatric problems, it’s a time to loop the family in,” she said.

In response, Teva Pharmaceuticals, the company that makes Adderall, issued a statement: “Adderall is a Schedule II controlled substance, and the package insert clearly states the risks associated with incorrect dosage, misuse or abuse and recommends that doctors properly monitor patients.  This medicine is not recommended for patients with a history of drug abuse.  Adderall is one of many prescription drugs subject to abuse.”

Although the Food and Drug Administration has warned of a slightly increased risk of psychiatric problems from Adderall abuse, Richard’s suicide is an extreme, rare reaction to the drug, Snyderman noted, but “one kid dead is too many,” she said.

When properly diagnosed with thorough testing, knowing the child’s history and taking the lowest dose necessary, “it can be a great drug,” she said.

One in five high school students has taken a prescription drug like Adderall or Xanax without a prescription, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in 2010. Psychiatrist Dr. Joshua Weiner, told TODAY that many kids want that ability to study for long periods of time.

“That’s something a lot of kids desire,” said Weiner, who practices in McLean, Va.

Snyderman said Richard’s death is another example of the changing face of drug addiction.

“It’s now white suburban kids who can get their hands on prescription medications,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you have to be down and out.”