‘It’s like the first cup of coffee you ever had, except times a million,” says Jacob, a University of Alberta student who asked to not have his real name used. “You have this energy and whatever you translate this energy into is what you do. You take a pill, you’re super-motivated and it’s like ‘Oh, I’m going to read this entire textbook’.”
Jacob, who is a fifth-year political science student, has taken Adderall, a prescription stimulant commonly known as a “study drug,” to pull all-nighters. However, a doctor didn’t prescribe the pills to him. Instead, he bought them for $5 each from a friend who had a prescription.
“My friend was talking about how great it was and I was kind of skeptical,” Jacob says. “I didn’t want to rely on drugs to study. And then one night, I actually had a midterm I was totally unprepared for, and I asked him ‘Hey, can I try this? I need to essentially learn this entire course for tomorrow.’ He gave it to me.”
Jacob’s night of cramming in the library began in earnest, with his friend’s pill doing the trick. “From like 5 pm to about 11 pm, I don’t think I moved once. I just sat at my desk, so I just learned German for six hours straight.”
There isn’t much hard data on this type of drug use. A 2008 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry which reviewed 21 separate studies, found that anywhere between five and 35 percent of American university and college students have used Adderall or other stimulants like Ritalin without a prescription.
“Without action, some of our best and brightest minds are at risk,” states a September 2011 editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “It must be recognized by universities as a life-threatening issue and then denormalized.”
Dr Su-Ting Teo, Director of Student Health and Wellness at Toronto’s Ryerson University, says that the reactions can be bad. “They’re rare, but they’re serious: heart problems, strokes, sudden death, seizures, that sort of thing,” she says. “But the common one is you can’t sleep and [start] feeling anxious and then getting more dependent.
Jacob has noticed that on top of an abnormal heartbeat from his first use, his body has become more tolerant to Adderall.
“You can feel your heart beating in your chest, like you just ran up and down HUB Mall,” he says, adding that the drug has interfered with his depression. “When I took that first pill, I took it at 5 pm, and I honestly didn’t fall asleep until 5 am. And taking it now, it’ll just last three or four hours.”
Although Jacob says that people should be concerned about Adderall’s side-effects, he stresses moderation. “I don’t take it unless I need to,” he continues. “I just think people need to be educated. I’m not going to say people shouldn’t take it because more-or-less my experience with it has been positive. But just educate yourself on it and know your limit.”
But Petros Kusmu, the U of A Students’ Union president, is more cautious. He says a “handful” of students he personally knows have tried it, but have realized that it’s not worth it.
“You might have a momentary advantage, but during your exam, you’re going to be as shaky as hell, probably tired, exhausted and brain dead, whereas if you got the proper amount of sleep and had the ability to study in a healthier way, you wouldn’t be in that kind of spot.”
Kusmu says he knows of students who have become hyper-focused on things such as going on Facebook or flipping a pen while using the drugs. He also admits to once taking a friend’s prescription stimulant about two years ago. But in contrast to Jacob’s experience, his was largely negative as he became physically sick.
“It was one of those things where you hear about it and you try it, but I just didn’t feel like it improved my performance overall,” he says. “The reason I took it out was I had a lot of mental-health issues at the time. I was super stressed-out. I was going through a lot in terms of my course load, in terms of my work, in terms of volunteering, making sure at the end of a day I was graduating as a competitive student and have a lot on my resumé.
“But did it serve me any better? Not really. Was it dangerous for me? Absolutely.”
Jake Tremblay, director of the U of A’s Mental Health Centre, hasn’t been able to detect it as an issue on campus outside of anecdotal rumours. “In terms of seeing it present itself at the Mental Health Centre, that has not presented itself as an ongoing concern or concern at all,” he says. Not only are U of A-specific study drug statistics unavailable, but no students have come into his office regarding it.
Tremblay explains that students who take study drugs are likely doing so to cope with the competitive nature of student life. “Oftentimes, we’ll see individuals who are very highly focused on achievement and sometimes out of balance with a more complete healthy-living style and some students resort to it. It’s often self-perception that’s motivating that.”
Kusmu plans to address the issue under the priority of student mental health, which the U of A is writing a report on, to be published this fall.
“It’s the elephant in the room that no one really wants to talk about,” he says. “I’d say almost everyone in university has a friend who sells one. And it’s not particularly something you notice, but I think almost everyone has a first-hand connection to it.”