When David*, a U1 Political Science student, is preparing for an exam, he will study all night and then pop an Adderall or Ritalin in the morning. He says they make him feel prepared for the test.
“It gives me a sense of calmness. It gives me self-confidence. It feels as if I had studied two weeks in advance and had gotten a full night’s sleep before the exam,” David said.
David, who does not have a prescription for Adderall and gets his pills from friends or dealers, says his success at McGill depends on the use of the drugs.
“Study drugs are indispensable to my academic career and its successes. I depend on them to achieve results that are otherwise unobtainable,” he said.
Yet he insists it is fair that he uses the drugs, since everyone at McGill in theory has access to them.
“Everyone has – or could have – access to study drugs, and they voluntarily choose not to take them, so it is not unfair for me to take them,” David said.
In fact, McGill’s rules on academic integrity do not forbid the abuse of prescription drugs for academic purposes.
Linda Jacobs Starkey, Associate Dean of Students and Chair of the Academic Integrity Subcommittee of Committee on Student Affairs, was surprised to hear that use of psycho-stimulants was popular among students.
“Using psycho-stimulants to enhance academic performance would not fit into present definitions of academic offences,” Starkey said.
But many students are disconcerted by the widespread use of psycho-stimulants, as they could affect class averages and grade standards.
“It’s fine to say that everyone is free to make their own choices, but ultimately these choices are going to affect me,” said Clementine Roberts, U1 Mathematics.
“[These students] claim that their actions affect only themselves, when they are actually instrumental in heightening the unrealistic academic standards that drove them to take the drugs in the first place.”
Starkey said that the prevalence of study drugs has been “flying under the radar” at McGill and other schools in North America. She noted that amphetamines such as Adderall have not been included in recent risk behaviour surveys.
“If data shows that [study drugs] would provide an unfair academic advantage, we would need to think about it,” Starkey said.
But David – and others at McGill who also asked to remain anonymous – insisted that frequency of abuse of prescription drugs is high at McGill, and that many use the drugs to improve academic performance.
“I do think there is a subculture of study drugs and alternative means to conventional study, and that many people have bought into it,” he said. “Among my personal group of friends I would say that just about everyone is and has used study drugs for those very purposes.”
According to students interviewed, students often purchase study drugs in McGill’s library and residences, but the pills are easy to obtain almost anywhere. At McGill, the drugs usually sell for between $3 and $10 a pill, and during exam period, they are sold in bulk.
Francis*, a McGill student who sells drugs – though not prescription drugs – to the McGill community, said the demand for prescription drugs is particularly strong among Engineering students.
He added that although he would be hesitant to sell hard drugs like cocaine or ecstasy, he would consider selling psychostimulants to students.
“I would sell Concerta or Ritalin, because I’d be doing a service to other students, who are so mentally exhausted,” he said.
The drug doctors
Dr. Norman Hoffman, Director of McGill Mental Health Services (MMHS), said that, while the abuse of psycho-stimulants was a problem, the drugs may not improve academic performance.
“Grades do not improve with the use of psycho-stimulants,” he wrote in an email to The Daily. “[Study drugs] give the illusion of greater functioning more than actually improving performance.”
Hoffman suggested that students who rely on such drugs may have difficulty coping with the demands of a job when they enter the workforce.
“Drugs can give students an unfair advantage over the short term, but users’ overall functioning and ability to learn will be impaired by dependency on these drugs,” wrote Hoffman.
Psycho-stimulants – such as Adderall, Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Concerta – are generally prescribed to people with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a neurobiological disorder, and less frequently to patients with narcolepsy, chronic fatigue, or depression.
According to Denise Rochon, a psychiatrist at MMHS, possible side effects of the drug include high blood pressure, insomnia, decreased appetite and weight loss, gastrointestinal upset, headaches, and – most frequently – increased anxiety.
For some, it could trigger a manic or hypomanic episode or psychosis – a lack of contact with reality, including paranoid disorders. It can also lead to sadness and irritability, especially as the effect of the drug wears off.
David says he does not experience any side effects – and added that he is careful to use the drugs in moderation. But he added that many of his friends take the drugs “in enormous and irregular dosages, and build up their tolerance so that 25 milligrams of Adderall has no effect.”
McGill psychiatrists insist that they try to curb the frequency of prescriptions.
Rochon said many doctors are uncomfortable diagnosing patients with ADHD, since the potential for abuse is high.
“Many doctors, including psychiatrists, feel uncomfortable in diagnosing ADHD and especially in treating it with stimulants, being very fearful that patients will abuse or sell their drugs,” she wrote in an email to the Daily.
But David said students frequently manipulate the system – and that he would do so, as well, if the drugs weren’t so easily obtainable from other sources.
“[Drug dealers] either increase their dosage so they can distribute to others, or decrease their dosage and take a toll on their personal mental health in order to profit,” he explained.
He gets his drugs from friends who have renewable prescriptions.
“I would get my own prescription, but [the drugs] are so easily accessible that I do not need to take those measures,” David said.
Seeking a fix
Still, it’s unclear whether the McGill community has grasped the prevalence of prescription drug abuse, or the extent to which students feel intense pressure to succeed on their GPAs.
Starkey recommended that students who feel academic pressure use MMHS or counselling services to lessen stress.
“University is the time to set work habits for the future,” Starkey said.
Rochon said that one way to curb use of the drugs was to encourage psychiatrists to prescribe slow-release capsules instead of short-acting pills whenever possible.
“Most people who abuse meds are not that patient,” she wrote. “There is no doubt that a greater use of longer-acting meds would diminish the amount of abuse.”
But until such changes are made, David and other students at McGill say they will continue to use study drugs to up their marks.
“I am personally an opportunist. I will do anything to further my position in society, and do anything possible to maximize the grade I receive on a final exam,” David said.
*Starred names have been altered.
– with files from Stacey Wilson