Anna Pinkney | Contributing Writer | Friday, 12 May 2017

Students Relying On Study Drugs To Get Through Exam Season

Students Might Boast About Their Recreational Drug Use – But No-One Admits That They’re Relying On Study Drugs To Get Through Exam Season

The Debrief: Why do we assume students are being honest about their reliance on Adderall and Ritalin when exam season piles the pressure on?

Without fail, when exam season comes around so follows new calls for universities to address the use ‘smart drugs’. This week, it was the turn of Thomas Lancaster, an associate dean at Staffordshire University, who said we were entering a ‘dangerous world’ when it comes to study drugs. He called on universities to have ‘frank discussions’ with students and to take a closer look at how they tackle their use. 

You could easily have read the same story this time last year - the growing use of smart drugs has been well documented and the response this time round was much the same as always, that more and more students are using smart drugs and that universities must do more to deal with the increasing number of students utilising, including potentially introducing drug testing.

For the uninitiated, Smart Drugs’, otherwise known as nootropics, include Ritalin and Adderall Modafinil, which are prescribed to treat ADHD and Narcolepsy. Modafinil, which is used to treat narcolepsy, was called the ‘world’s first safe smart drug’ by researchers at Harvard and Oxford University, finding that it does enhance cognition, with side effects showing little overall impact in the short term, however there is very little research into the long-term effects of taking it. 

In 2016, the Oxford University student newspaper The Cherwell published survey results which showed that 15.6% of students take Modafinil or other nootropics to try and keep up with academic work. For the UK in general, current estimates suggest 10% to 15% of students have tried to improve academic performance at least once, by using drugs or alcohol. Studies of the use of Adderall and Ritalin by students in US universities put the figures at anywhere from 5% to 34%.

Commenting on the issue, Oxford University said that they hadn’t seen evidence of a widespread problem with smart drugs – 15.6% of students is still very firmly a minority. But, at least for me, the most surprising part of the same survey was that 53.2% of students knew other people at Oxford who had taken ‘study drugs’. 

And again, a more recent European survey found that the majority of students think that using smart drugs to enhance academic performance is normal. I searched further and came across a huge amount of anecdotal evidence of smart drug use (I lost count of how many times I read ‘everyone’s doing it’) to the extent that that 15.6% figure cited in the 2016 sudy sounds optimistic. 

But my surprise wasn’t around the number of students taking the drugs – it was the apparent openness with which they would talk about their use of smart drugs. 

In my experience at university, when it comes to recreational drugs, students are pretty open; I’ve had friends, strangers and even a drunk tutor talk about what they smoke/swallow/snort/inject at weekends. But with study drugs, the conversation is unsurprisingly closed. I was aware they existed and were used, but I’d never heard it discussed as casually as the articles suggested. 

Because to admit you’re taking smart drugs is to admit defeat. In an environment as competitive as Oxford, or Cambridge where I went, admitting that you needed that extra halp to hit your deadline, pass that exam, get that essay in was a sign of weakness. 

Telling your lecturer you’d been up of three days doing pills was a sign of how hardcore you are. Admitting you were mainlining Ritalin just to make it through the term would have been tantamount to asking for help, and that was never going to happen. I asked several people I knew about their study drug habits and no one wanted to talk about it publically. One said, anonymously ‘I obviously wasn’t the only person taking them, because I could get hold of them so easily – but no-one else ever said they were doing them.’

Maybe it was just my friends – maybe everyone else was shouting about their Adderall inake from their rafters. But the cost of university, and the pressure to succeed when you’re there, increase, I suspect that 15% figure is way off. 

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