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A hard pill to swallow

Mounting pressure and cluttered schedules have some students asking themselves if study drugs are a reasonable solution

AlexaTarrayo-studydrugs
Image Credits: Alexa Tarrayo

A 2013 survey conducted by the Canadian Organization of University and College Health found that 90% of students feel overwhelmed by their schedules, and 50% of students reported feeling “hopeless.” All of us experience enormous amounts of stress during our education — be it academic, financial, or other — and when it comes down to exam crunch time, for some, a small, non-prescribed pill is a solution.

You can choose between the orange pill and the white pill

Study drugs, also known as smart drugs, are prescription medications  — typically Adderall or Ritalin — used to increase concentration, stamina, and productivity while studying. These meds are prescribed to those with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), in order to help them concentrate, but the kinds of highs they can provide have caught the attention of students looking for additional academic support.

Those using these pills for academic reasons describe feeling focused and motivated, but the drugs can leave the user feeling exhausted, hungry, anxious, and sleepless afterwards. When asked why they began using study drugs, students said that feelings of self-consciousness, an inability to concentrate, and an overall feeling of stress with regards to academic performance led them to prescription drug abuse.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse classifies both drugs as stimulants, and finds them to be as dangerous as cocaine and methamphetamines when used outside of prescriptions. Consequently, getting these drugs come with varying levels of difficulty.

“It did take a lot of effort,” Jason,* who regularly uses study drugs, began. “You can get a prescription. To do that, get your parents to say ‘oh, you have ADHD’ or you can go to a pharmacy and act fidgety [. . .] I’ve known people who have done it and it’s not easy.”

In a series of interviews, other SFU students mentioned either having a minor disability that gives them access to the drugs or buying it off of a colleague or friend.

Looking at the numbers

It’s difficult to find one solid statistic to represent study drug use. Different universities and colleges have different rates, and it’s hard to draw a line between a student with ADD taking their prescription and one abusing their prescription.

A study conducted at the University of British Columbia found that one in 30 students there have at some point during their studies used study drugs, with a spike in usage around exam time. The national average in 2013 sat closer to 4%.

“I got an essay done, I read The Communist Manifesto, and I think I just started writing insane gibberish down on paper, because I just needed to do something.” – SFU student

A 2009 report from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that “full time college students, ages 18–22, were twice as likely as their part-time counterparts to use study drugs.” 56% of college students report that they feel study drugs are “easy to obtain” from their peers, and many students with prescriptions report being asked by classmates to share or sell their prescription drugs.

What are the rules?

What a lot of students and administration ask themselves about study drugs is quite simple: is it cheating?

“I don’t think it’s really cheating, because it’s not making you any smarter, it’s not giving you extra time. You’re cheating yourself, definitely, out of being able to actually learn the material,” Madison* said. Many universities seem to agree as most post-secondary institutions don’t mention the use of study drugs in their honor policies, despite being aware of the substance abuse issue.

“Non-prescribed use of prescription drugs is not addressed explicitly in our academic integrity policy.  Use of these drugs without prescription is dangerous and can lead to significant harm,” said Dr. Peter Keller, SFU vice-president (VP) academic and provost.

Dr. Keller feels it’s a poor reflection of society — “it saddens me to think that there are athletes, students, and others who will put themselves and others at risk by turning to non-prescribed use of prescription drugs in order to compete.”

This can leave many students wondering: if a peer is using study drugs, and you aren’t, are you actually putting yourself at a disadvantage?

The law, on the other hand, is a little clearer and stricter on policies with prescription drugs. Possession of a drug without a prescription, obtaining prescription drugs by fraud, selling prescription drugs or prescriptions, and doctor shopping (visiting many doctors for multiple prescriptions) are all considered criminal offences in Canada. Depending on drug type, concentration, and amount, charges range from fines to imprisonment to drug therapy.

The good, the bad, and the addictive

Students have different reasons for using study drugs. Some use study drugs to level the playing field and overcome a learning disability. Some students just want to be able to do their school work more quickly because of time constraints.

“The way I describe it to people who ask, people who were curious. . . It’s like when you can think of something perfectly in your head, but you can’t get it out,” Jamie* described her past experiences with the drug. “It’s like everything just comes out perfectly. . . it’s like the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had.”

There have been reports of students using, and continuing to use, these neuroenhancers for months, even years, as an academic and social crutch. With regards to the admission of a transfer or high school student who is using study drugs, Dr. Keller said that information with regards to drug use is not disclosed.

“It was actually a friend who got me into it, she was like ‘Oh you’ve got to try this. This is gonna save your life,’” Madison* said. However, in other interviews conducted, the common trend was that students were keeping their use of study drugs a secret from friends, family, and significant others — not encouraging others to experiment as they were. “If they did know, they definitely would have said ‘you’re an idiot,’ so I was definitely like, I’ll keep this to myself,” Paul* said.

One student, though, speaks of her open-minded parents and friends, and how her experiences talking about drugs made her realize how common it is: “Most people’s reaction when I bring it up is to ask where they can get some. It’s very popular.”

Students described their first experiences as “scary, yet effective” as well as compared it to a scene from the movie Limitless. For some it’s like “that feeling when the whole room lights up and everything becomes instantly clear.”

“I got an essay done, I read The Communist Manifesto, and I think I just started writing insane gibberish down on paper, because I just needed to do something,” Jason*  said with a laugh. After a first experience, many students continued to use the drugs, describing the pleasure, concentration, and confidence the drugs gave them in both school and social environments. Many interview participants also spoke to the negative effects in the long term.

A promising Beedie student recounts some more negative experiences,“I know one guy who would take them everyday, two or three a day, and he couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t watch a 15 minute video because his mind wanders too much. That’s a really incredible adverse side effect in that way. He’s also been hospitalized twice because of it.

Multiple participants noted the addictiveness of the drugs. “It’s pretty obvious that there are adverse negative effects to using them. I decided that it’s really not worth it,” Andrew* said, mentioning the exhaustion and feelings of dread he would experience in the days following him taking a pill. Another student studying biomedicine stressed the negative impact it had on her health and how it was “screwing with” the way she did her schoolwork.

What are stress-relieving alternatives for SFU students?

At SFU, there are multiple clubs that address the mental health of the student body. The SFU Stress Reliever Club is a shining example, hosting events that help students escape from school-related stress.

We provide a few events per semester for students with different personalities. . . We offer yoga, meditation, hiking, and biking events,” said Parmida Atashzay, a club member. “We have get-togethers and dinners. We also have fun events like bowling, laser tag, paintball, etc. These events all destress students and make them escape from school life for a while.” There are also events such as Puppy and Kitten Therapy. The Stress Reliever Club emphasizes the need for a healthy diet, a friendly environment, and talking about your problems in order to reduce your academic stress.

When asked how SFU’s administration would respond if it was found that SFU had a study drug problem, VP Dr. Keller offered a well-thought out plan. “SFU would work with its partners to implement harm reduction activities aimed at educating on the risks of inappropriate/illegal drug use, as well as the risks associated with illegal drug purchasing and dealing. SFU would also promote and offer supportive alternative lifestyle choice and study skill workshops, and perhaps counselling groups,” he suggests.

“The number one thing on our mind is the safety of our students.”

*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the source*

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