To drug or not to drug

Students are using Adderall and Ritalin to help with studying. But are they safe?

In the most recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, Walter Kirn is taking a hard look at student use of attention deficit disorder medications like Adderall and Ritalin to help boost academic performance. He’s in a good position to critique them, he says, because he took Adderall back in the 80s.

The psychiatrist who prescribed the drug predicted they would enhance his concentration and give him a new competitive edge — as long as he used it properly.

“What I wished for back then — a modest, short-term boost that would yield sustainable long-term gains — is what so many of us want right now, particularly, I would think, worried college students who find themselves stumbling back to school in a season of grim, uncertain prospects,” writes Kirn.

“Adderall, I discovered during the courtship phase of what became our deeply tortured relationship, offers a kind of assistance to the brain that feels just right, at first, for the age of multitasking…It seemed to allow me to do three things at once and not completely fail at two of them. Far more important, however, it helped me do one thing at once and focus on it.”

According to some estimates, Kirn says up to a quarter of undergraduate students at some colleges or universities are using stimulants to help them “get the grades that will get them the jobs that will get them the insurance that will get them the medications to do the jobs.” And although the drug helped him through a hard time in his life, Kirn had to give them up when his mouth filled with sores and he started getting hemorrhoids from long bouts of sitting.

Are these drugs being used in Canada? According to this OnCampus story from a few months ago, they certainly are, and they’ve been around for awhile. Ten years ago, McGill University’s director of mental health services told the Montreal Gazette he believed that five to 10 per cent of the university’s students were using Ritalin to help them study.

Plus, Canadian students in search of the drugs likely have little difficulty getting their hands on them. They can buy them over the Internet, ask a friend or classmate with a prescription to give them the pills, or get their own prescription. According to the health care consultancy IMS Canada, more than 1.3 million Ritalin prescriptions were handed out in Canada in 2008, a seven-fold increase since 1992.

For more on the Times story click here, and for “Brain Candy: Can Ritalin turn you into an A student?”, click here.