Carly* is a fourth-year biochemistry student at Western. She has a lot in common with her peers—she lived in residence in her first year, she pays her own tuition by working part-time and collecting student loans to help cover her costs, she works hard and wants to be a doctor one day. And, like a growing number of university students in Canada, she has used the ADHD medication Adderall XR to help her study.
It was during the final exam period in her second year, and she had a tough cell biology exam coming up. Faced with myriad distractions—chiefly the beautiful spring weather and Reddit—the decision to take the pill wasn’t hard. “My friend’s brother gave it to him, and he was scared to take it,” she explained. “So I told him I’d take it with him, just to have someone to take it with.”
She did a bit of research on the side effects and decided to give it a try. She wasn’t disappointed. Carly said she studied for about eight hours straight that day, and is certain the drug helped her grade on the final. She did better on the exam than she expected—86 per cent—and she’s pretty sure it boosted her mark in the course overall.
“Once I started doing work, it was like my brain was just flowing with ideas and information and everything,” she said.
Adderall is an amphetamine salts-based medication designed to treat the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD or ADD. Similar to its medicinal predecessor Ritalin, which was first made available in 1956, the drug helps stimulate the arousal system of the brain, increasing focus and wakefulness. This makes it an ideal companion for students who need some extra help pulling that all-nighter.
Adderall and similar drugs are considered controlled substances under Schedule III of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act—meaning anyone caught selling the drug could face up to three years in prison. The medication also comes with a host of possible side effects, including fever, cardiac arrhythmia, paranoid delusions and a potential for addiction comparable to cocaine and speed.
Despite the dangers, the rate of illegal use of Adderall and other so-called “study drugs” on campuses across North America is rising. A 2011 editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal estimated anywhere from five to 35 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students had abused the medication, and many students consider popping a pill—typically sold for about $10—no worse than brewing a pot of coffee to stay up all night and write an essay.
But for Carly, the effects were markedly different than coffee.
“I feel like coffee keeps me awake and alert, and without it I just get really bad headaches,” she said. “With Adderall, it worked kind of different. It just made me focused, whereas coffee just makes me awake.”
Deb Josephson, a physician at Western’s Student Health Services, said patients experiencing side effects from study drugs are common at SHS. Josephson said they come in at least once every exam period, and given the illegal nature of the activity, she speculated the actual number is much higher.
Though the rate at which study drugs are used is increasing, their use for cognitive enhancement is nothing new.
“I think I’ve been aware of it almost as long as I’ve been in medicine,” Josephson said. She explained a change in the diagnosis practices of ADHD—only formally recognized as a disorder that affects adults in 1978—accounted for the rise in use among students.
Accordingly, students regularly go to SHS seeking an Adderall prescription. However, that trend has declined somewhat in recent years, as the clinic has tightened its criteria for prescribing the medication—if doctors at the clinic discover their patients have been sharing their medication, they stop prescribing it.
In fact, Adderall may not even work on people who don’t need it, despite the anecdotal evidence. According to both Josephson and the Canadian Medical Association Journal, there is no available scientific evidence showing study drugs to be cognitively helpful to healthy people.
So, given the dangerous side effects of Adderall, why aren’t more people aware of them? Where are the awareness campaigns, the activists, the anti-study drug ads and pamphlets? Why do students, by and large, consider study drugs to be benign? Why, in the face of evidence of study drugs’ inefficacy and risk, do students continue to use them?
The simple answer is there is a profound lack of open acknowledgement of the problem on university campuses. While first-year students at Western, for example, are assailed with a barrage of causes and campaigns during their Orientation Week—One Love Rally, LGBT acceptance and safe sex, to name a few—there’s no concerted effort to educate students about the prevalence and potential dangers of study drug abuse. The most common way they learn about it is from their peers extolling the virtues of Adderall.
“There have been no serious side effects in the news, no Adderall drug-busts. It’s not brought up as much as other drugs are in the news in society—it’s just kind of there,” Carly said. “With MDMA, you hear about it in the news—so-and-so died—or ecstasy, or heroin. You hear of marijuana busts, coke busts, but you never hear of someone getting arrested for having Adderall on them.”
There is also one other reason students aren’t concerned about the consequences of study drugs—though technically illegal, the use of un-prescribed ADHD medication to succeed is not considered an academic offence at Western. So, in other words, it’s not cheating—not officially, anyway.
John Doerksen, vice-provost academic programs and students at Western, said the university senate has not officially recognized the problem.
“Study drugs are not specifically identified in Western’s scholastic discipline policy, and I am not aware of any scholastic offence allegations related to study drugs,” he said.
Unlike alcohol or marijuana, which are easy to vilify as providing students with a cheap escape from their studies, students take Adderall precisely because they want to succeed. It’s a lot harder to condemn misguided actions carried out with good intentions.
As admission averages, enrollment numbers, tuition costs, and stress levels are rising to record highs, the value of an undergraduate degree is steadily decreasing. Students looking to their futures are stared down by the looming specter of the “real world”—careers, student debt, mortgages. With so much being expected of so many, it’s only natural a growing minority would seek assistance in the form of an innocuous-looking capsule.
Maybe, then, we can take some solace in the fact many of the students using study drugs on Canadian campuses are doing so after critical thought—some students may even be given a new perspective from the experience and realize they need to pull their act together.
That’s what happened for Carly.
“I was focused, but I had to choose what I was going to focus on. I could focus on work, or I could focus on Reddit,” she said.
“If you have good study habits—and I’m starting to finally learn what those are—going to the library for four hours a day is probably better than an eight-hour study cram the night before, like Adderall would probably give you.”
*Name has been changed for the sake of anonymity