By Ariana Stefancic
You have a million and one things to do — you have three midterms coming up, a paper due in two days and you’ve just picked up an extra shift at your job. If you’re a typical student, you might brew up a pot of coffee and get to work.
But if you’re part of a growing class of ambitiously amoral students, you reach into your bag and pull out a yellow plastic bottle with some pharmaceutical word-vomit printed on the label. You pop open the lid and take two small, white pills with a sip of water.
You feel a sense of relief, knowing that the pills are going to start doing their job in a timespan of twenty to thirty minutes, beginning to dissolve from your trachea all the way down to your stomach, until it starts to absorb through to your capillaries and work its way to your brain.
Thousands of university students take these pills in order to improve their focus and enhance their learning abilities.
Of these study-drugs, the most commonly used are methylphenidate, often known as Ritalin; and Adderall, a mixture of two different amphetamine salts. Also gaining a following is Modafinil, a relative newcomer to the field that boasts the impressive ability to keep one awake for 40 hours with little-tono loss in function.
The street name for amphetamine- related drugs is speed, and for good reason. Each drug works slightly differently, but all interact with receptors in the brain to produce an increase in dopamine, serotonin and Norepinephrine, ultimately giving you a boost of energy.
The other thing these drugs have in common is that they’re psychostimulants prescribed to people who show signs of distractibility, restlessness and an overall inability to focus. These drugs improve both focus and wakefulness, and have long been used to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
However, these prescription drugs have become black-market boosters for post-secondary students short on time and shorter on sleep. Anna Armstrong*, a graduate from the interior design program at Ryerson, says that Adderall helped her through her undergraduate years.
“The times I took them were the times I found myself to be out of focus,” says Armstrong. “They helped me get back on track.”
She says that she first tried the drug out of curiosity, because she noticed other students taking them. But the stiff competition in interior design is part of what drove her to continue taking Adderall outside its recommended use.
“You can walk in an interior design or architecture studio at any time of the night and will see someone working on something,” says Armstrong. “Not only was the competition at a ridiculous level, but I also had to obtain my grades, direct and manage our year end show, consider and apply to a masters program, do my teachers assistance tasks, transfer to a different school for a summer abroad program and, most importantly, having to prepare and apply for the real world.”
As with any other drugs, there are possible adverse effects to be wary of. Dr. Su-Ting Teo, Director of Health and Wellness at Ryerson, says that there are impacts to consider, as with any drug. “Common short-term impacts include insomnia, anxiety, agitation, headaches, nausea, and palpitations. Long-term impacts include addiction and dependence — meaning you start needing more and more to have the same effect,” she says. “Rare serious reactions include psychosis, heart attacks, and stroke.”
Frank Solice*, who is in his last year of engineering, says he isn’t worried about any adverse effects because he only takes study drugs when he really needs to.
“I take them when I have very little time to do a task and want to focus on that one task only,” he says. “They are only taken for ‘crunch time’ purposes. If I have a limited amount of time to do a task, I take them.” Solice says he’ll take “Ritalin Adderall, Vyvanse, and essentially anything with the amphetamine compound in it.” But since he only takes these sporadically, he doesn’t see a problem. He notes his use is very different from a daily user’s, even if that user has a prescription.
“There are side effects to every single thing that you put in your body,” says Solice. “Moderation, though, is the key to solving this problem.”
Other students found that moderation wasn’t an option when dealing with schoolwork. Monica Recine*, who studied architecture at Ryerson, says that without Adderall she could barely focus in school.
“I strongly believe that Adderall has helped me a lot,” she says. “It’s the only thing that made me focus on schoolwork and work in general.” Like every student, Recine often felt the need for an energy boost during her time at Ryerson. But unlike the typical student, she felt she couldn’t get by on coffee.
Solice agrees that the drugs are superior to coffee. “Caffeine has a low threshold and a negative return after a while,” he says. “Amphetamines, however, do not.” When he wants to crash, he stops taking pills.
“We had to pull a lot of all-nighters, and coffee wouldn’t help me anymore,” says Recine. “The problem with coffee is if you drink too much, your body just shuts down after a while. Adderall doesn’t work that way.”
Word of mouth is very important to the practice of using drugs as a study aid. As with most illicit drugs, many users first try these pills on the recommendations of friends.
“The first time I tried Adderall, my friend gave it to me. She kept telling me that it would make me focus on whatever I wanted to focus on,” says Recine. “Once, when I was writing an essay, someone was trying to talk to me and I just wanted them to stop because I was just so focused on what I was doing.” She says she felt incredibly annoyed at the attempt to divert her attention from her work.
Newcomer drug Modafinil also has major appeal for the perpetually busy: the United States Air Force concluded the drug helped pilots stay up for 40 hours straight without significantly losing their ability to perform four out of six maneouvres.
Alison Rossi*, a fourth year student studying social work in gerontology, has been taking Modafinil for five years as a treatment for narcolepsy. She says that she also uses it to help her stay awake when she needs to finish her schoolwork.
“They are gaining popularity because of the allure to be able to maintain a busy social life while still being able to focus on getting school work finished as well,” says Rossi. “It has become easier to successfully run on empty.”
Of course, she has had firsthand experience with negative effects of Modafinil, and says she believes that it can have adverse effects on one’s body.
“The info pamphlet that comes with Modafinil says that it isn’t known specifically how the medication works on the brain,” she says. “I’ve gotten the shakes from taking it, and when I was first prescribed I was given too high a dosage, which had awful side effects.”
The doctor originally prescribed her four pills a day. She says she could not see straight, her body ached and she needed physical help getting back to her dorm room at the end of the day.
But short-term effects are not as concerning as long-term ones. Some students don’t even realize they have a problem until something bad happens to them. From a biological perspective, ingesting these drugs “increases a body’s dopamine levels in certain parts of the brain. People who have ADHD who need the medication are not stimulated enough in certain parts of the brain that are responsible for attention,” says Teo. “If you do not have ADHD and you take the medications, it increases receptors for neurotransmitters [and] you end up needing more and more to have the same effect.”
Armstrong says she knows that dependency could become a problem, but questions how easily that will happen. “You could become dependent on coffee as well,” she says. “Except coffee doesn’t do the harm that Adderall will.”
But Adderall can also cause a much more severe dependence than coffee — Teo says that the medical centre has had to deal with drug-seeking behaviour before.
“We have had some students in the Medical Centre [who had] dependency problems but didn’t recognize it,” says Teo.
“They come wanting more and more medication. I’ve had a student steal a prescription pad and write himself a prescription, as we would not provide extra prescriptions.” She adds, “of course, people also steal medication to sell on the street.”
Despite the huge demand for these drugs, Rossi doesn’t believe it helps your grades.
“In the times I have needed to stay up and focus I think it has helped, but I don’t think it has necessarily helped me do well in school,” she says. “It helps to get the work done, but the quality is likely lacking.”
Armstrong agrees that the end result might not have been greatly altered by her use of Adderall. “I find it to have more of a negative outcome rather than positive,” she says. “Looking back I would have done the same amount of work if I hadn’t taken them.”
With or without drugs, students are still going to have to do the work they are assigned and write the exams given at the end of each course. But the extra time afforded by these drugs might just mean the difference between success and failure. “With this economy we’re facing today, if time is money — we’re out of both,” says Armstrong.
*Names have been changed