“Eating on an Adderall, wash it down with alcohol
Writing holy mackerel, actual all factual”
– Danny Brown, Adderall Admiral
A study recently published in Performance Enhancement and Health has shown that Australian students are using performance-enhancing drugs to study at a higher lifetime rate than their peers internationally. The study, conducted by Mazanov et al, reveals that Australian students are using a diverse range of stimulants, supplements and depressants at a higher rate than other students in Germany and United States. The results of the study demonstrate that students are consuming drugs like dextroamphetamine (Dexamphetamine; Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin; Concerta) to primarily improve focus and attention, and to stay awake for study-related purposes.
Methylphenidate, more commonly known as Ritalin or Concerta in its extended-release form, and Dextroamphetamine, sold in Australia as Dexamphetamine, are stimulant medications which enhance the presynaptic release of neurotransmitters, in particular dopamine and norepinephrine. Both are prescribed for sufferers of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and/or narcolepsy. They slow the rate at which dopamine and norepinephrine are removed from the brain’s synapses, increasing the levels of both neurotransmitters. Dopamine plays important roles in motor control, motivation, arousal, cognition, sexual gratification, and reward. Norepinephrine plays a key role in decision-making processes, and is influential in the execution of tasks, recall memory and perseverance.
For one Masters student, Ritalin is a “life-saver”. He’s been using it for about a month. He never took Ritalin as an undergraduate, but wishes that he had. “I can go 12 hours now without removing my eyes from my computer screen. It’s not like coffee, where you’re awake but you sometimes can’t process information. On Ritalin all you can do is process information”. The first time he took it was an hour before an exam. His friend had just been given a prescription for Ritalin, and offered him one. “It was a bit spontaneous. It’s not the brightest thing in the world to take a drug before an exam, but hey, there was no stress, no hesitation – it was easy, and I aced it.” Since then, he’s been using it when he needs to write assignments. “If I have a paper due at 5pm the next day, I’ll start studying at 8pm, and writing at midnight, and the next morning it’ll be done. It’s not something I could ever have done before. I mean I could have done it, but not as well”. When asked whether he was worried about addiction, he answered “Someone did ask me ‘Why is your mind not strong enough to do this sober rather than on drugs?’ but I don’t think it works like that. Sometimes you just need a little boost”.
Another student interviewed said that particular question was the catalyst to quit. This student began using dexamphetamine in Year 11, and continued throughout university. At the end of first year, when the usual supply ran out, “we convinced one of our mates [to] go to this psychiatrist and get a prescription. He just Googled the symptoms [of ADHD], and got a bottle of 300 straight away, selling them to us at $5 a pop”. Suddenly, he says, “This group of dropkicks became academically excellent students. I mean, we were still dropkicks, and we didn’t study that hard, but 4-5 days before an exam we would just kick it up a notch. The change in focus is that profound, we were getting 90s when we should have been getting a lot less for the hours we were putting in.” For this student, however, the shadow of addiction wasn’t far off. He states, “As with anything that’s too good, you get a bit hooked on it, and can let it take control of your life. I wasn’t an addict, but I became a bit dependent”. His friends realised that they were relying on it for everything – not just exam study, but also presentations and going out in Civic – and asked “why should we need it to study when other people don’t?” He says, “Taking drugs is fine, but you’ve got to have your long-term ambitions set, and know that the drugs aren’t detracting from those ambitions, because if they are, then you’re just a junkie.”
One later-year student argues that the use of these drugs creates a false expectation of students who are already in a high-pressure situation. “I’ve used it a couple of times, but only in those ‘Oh Shit’ moments – and that’s part of the problem. I’ve only used it when I’ve been on my third all-nighter, where I’ve already been really anxious, and drugs like this just increase your anxiety to the point where you’re getting heart palpitations at 3am to get an essay in by 12 the next day”. She says that using performance-enhancing drugs deflects from the fact that students are able to perform amazing feats without it. She argues that it actually allows students to avoid learning life-skills like effective time management and self-belief, stating “Later on in life, you’re going to be in equally stressful situations where you can’t just pop a Ritalin, where you’re going to need to just suck it up”. It’s a question of understanding that you can’t simply give in to societal pressures of being superhuman. “[Drugs like these] turn people into machines, and you’re not a machine. You have to be able to learn from your mistakes – if you medicate it simply delays the problem, instead of solving it like so many people believe it will”.
Another argument in the debate comes from students who think that taking these types of drugs is simply another form of cheating. One medical student asks, “How is it fair that I spend 12 hours in the library working on an assignment, when someone else can take these drugs and get it done in four hours?” She states, “It’s taking a treatment for an illness and using it for a purpose for which it isn’t prescribed, which is putting other students who choose not to take drugs at all, let alone to help them study, at a significant disadvantage, and also delegitimizing the sufferers of ADHD who need these medications to get by”. She uses the analogy of doping in sport, arguing “If sportsmen and women are vilified for using performance-enhancing drugs in their field of expertise, I don’t think that academics is any different. How can you justify performance-enhancing drugs in one area, and in the same breath criticize those who use them in another?”
For the Masters student interviewed above, “It’s an impressive drug. A lot of people take drugs to party, and nobody really gives a shit. But I don’t really party. I like being good at what I do. If you can say to a student, “Hey, this drug can take your grade from a Credit to a Distinction or High Distinction”, who would say no? Sure, there are side effects, but for those who can do it, why wouldn’t you?” Both the Mazanov study and anecdotal evidence from students demonstrate that more research must be done on the short- and long-term effects of using performance-enhancing drugs for study to answer this question,
Written by Amanda Neilson. Photo by visualls.