Exam season: studying, libraries and performance enhancing drugs

Dónal Corrigan

To cope with stress, an increasing number of students are turning to 'study drugs'.

Mark was in the middle of taking a quick break from the library. He popped outside for a quick rollie. While outside his heart started racing, he knew it had kicked in.

Coming back into the library he knew his brain had changed. His ability to focus was much stronger. He could now concentrate at a level that other students could only imagine. He had an edge over other students in his course.

For some students, like Mark, who’s name has been changed to protect his identity, performance enhancing drugs come hand in hand with exam season. The heavy presence of Ritalin and Adderall as performance enhancing drugs for stressed students during exam season has become a growing issue across college campuses.

There drugs have been claimed to help improve concentration and productivity and are prescribed for people with ADHD in order to help with concentration. They increase levels of stimulation in the brain and enhance concentration. Therefore some students see them as the ideal substance to take during exam season. A study  done by Pr. Alan DeSantis found that 30% of students had used a ‘study drug’ at the University of Kentucky.

“A large proportion of students that use these drugs take it to make up for the slacking off they did during the year. However, the other half use them merely to get an edge over their classmates. It’s pure competition.” explains DCU student Ciara.

Ciara’s name has also been changed to protect her privacy.

Ciara has been using Ritalin since she was in second year. A substantial breakfast is needed during the exam for Ciara because a side effect of Ritalin is a loss of appetite. After eating, she takes a Ritalin and after an hour, she is in the zone. Concentration levels spike and can remain there from anywhere to four to sixteen hours.

Ciara explains that these drugs are beneficial because they adjusts the brain to the environment that exams make.

“The education system is not for the smartest people but for the person that can study the best.”

Ritalin and Adderall provide the stimulation to perform mundane tasks for a prolonged period of time. Yet they do not necessarily allow the brain to absorb the information that you are looking at for hours on ends.

The effects of these drugs can be often overlooked. Most medical studies warn of the negative side effects that these drugs can have on people who do not have ADHD which include; anxiety, insomnia, vomiting, loss of appetite and agitation.

“It f*cks with your brain.” explains Ciara

Students should be wary when buying Adderall. Mark told The College View that the drug is not yet licensed in Ireland and as a result, drugs are sold under the name of Adderall but in reality students don’t know what they are getting. This can be concerning considering the fact that these ADHD drugs vary in strength and purpose.

In other words, it can not be guaranteed what state you will be in the library.

The students interviewed both recalled similar experiences on the drug. Mark and Ciara said they were in the middle of an intense flow of work when suddenly it stopped. The smallest thing can hold your attention for a prolonged time when taking study drugs. This can be a word or a number on a page but it can consume all your focus. One student remembered staring at the word ‘the’ for two hours.

So while it can heighten concentration, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are in control of your focus.

And while they are known as study drugs, both Ritalin and Adderall have a far more serious chemical structure. Ritalin shares the same chemical D.N.A as cocaine making it an addictive substance. Students may find themselves on an unwanted rush or high in the library. Equally, Adderall shares the same makeup as methamphetamine, more commonly known as crystal meth. This drug provides your brain with synthetic stimulants which allows you to concentrate far more clearly. Yet abuse of this drug can lead to your brain relying on artificial stimulants. This combined with the fact that it can be a highly addictive substance means that these study drugs have a far more dangerous potential than some might think.

Students access these drugs in a variety of ways. The dark web has given people access to a variety of drugs that previous generations couldn’t imagine. Another common means of distribution comes from over the counter prescription. In some cases, people will be prescribed these drugs and find themselves with an excess. This excess of drugs can come from ether prescriptions or patients failing to comply with their doctors on taking their medication.

How many times have you not stuck to the full course of antibiotics?  As exam season roles in some students find themselves sitting on a mini fortune, which at any other time of year would be worthless.

Interestingly, nobody that was interviewed said that they would take these drugs in a professional environment. One of the students interviewed said that this is down to the system that is in place at university. It’s the age-old tale of students struggling to juggle part-time jobs, social life and then the unhealthy pressure of exam time.

Despite the fact that these are performance enhancing drugs the students interviewed said that they would not feel the need to use them once they enter the working life. Ciara explained that the work-life appears to be far less stressful. She said she felt that working life has a routine that is far from the chaotic lifestyle of college, which makes some students feel that they need to take study drugs.

Dónal Corrigan

Image credit: Pxhere