Updated: Oct 7
Academic and social pressures have reached a record high. From the uncertainty that has percolated into the job market since Covid to the rising cost of living, a degree from a prestigious university no longer promises an ideal future.
In order to have a surefire shot at a well-paying job, the university student finds themselves aiming for a high-degree classification along with plenty of work experience. Add on the itch to live up to the Fresh Meat paragon of uni life and higher education becomes a greatly unsustainable storm. Something’s gotta give…or is there another way?
To brave this storm, many students are taking a dangerous approach. Almost a quarter of St Andrews students who participated in a straw poll conducted by The Saint said they have used 'study drugs’.
Study drugs are prescription stimulants, often used to treat narcolepsy or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Common study drugs include modafinil, Adderall, and Vyvanse. By increasing activity in the nervous system, they allow students to stay focused, alert, and energised for longer periods of time.
According to an investigation by The Times, 19 per cent of university students in the UK have used study drugs during their academic career. However, with an American student population which Times Higher Education ranked the largest (percentage wise) in the UK, it is no wonder numbers are slightly higher in St Andrews, our straw poll found.
Across the pond, a study from the University of Kentucky found that 34.5 per cent of American university students have used study drugs. The greater use of study drugs in the US can be attributed to a range of factors — for one, Americans are the most medicated population in the world, with over half of the country regularly taking an average of four different prescription drugs.
Adderall is not licensed in the UK and is not commonly prescribed. In the US, on the other hand, Adderall is licensed and prescribed far more often. Prescriptions for those with ADHD are far more common in the US as well, with some states prescribing medication for up to 81 per cent of those with the disorder.
“Everyone I know gets theirs (study drugs) from Americans. If we’re talking about an unfair advantage, it’s them who has it. All of them are on medications and, realistically, how many need it? It’s not as if Americans are more likely to have ADHD”, said Jack, second year philosophy student.
While Finn, fourth year international relations has a prescription for Adderall, he does not have ADHD — a caveat of the American healthcare system. “I was able to get a prescription through my doctor even though I don’t have ADHD. I use it pretty regularly”.
Second year biology student Emma told The Saint that she suffers from undiagnosed ADHD and depends on study drugs, specifically Adderall, to do her readings and to complete her coursework.
“It’s harder to get a diagnosis through the NHS, let alone a prescription,” said Emma, who is from Scotland, “My American friend gets a massive prescription before coming back to Scotland to make up for the times she can’t get a refill here so I get them off her”.
When asked if she pays for the medication, she shrugged, stating, “Only when she’s feeling stingy”.
The students I spoke to who utilise study drugs have one thing in common — they are all academic high-achievers with bustling social lives. Study drugs ease the pressure to aim to graduate with a first, to jam-pack their CV with impressive extracurricular commitments, and to maintain their busy social calendars.
“Before Covid, I never took Ritalin. I didn’t need it. I completely lost the ability to concentrate or do any uni work after lockdown,” said Rebecca, a fourth year economics student. Rebecca told us she went from finishing with a 16.7 average in her first year at St Andrews to just barely passing second year.
This changed after trying Ritalin, given to her by an American friend. After starting Ritalin at the start of her third year, her grades have returned to the high standards she had in high school. “I can’t work without it,” Rebecca said.
Herein lies one of the biggest concerns with study drugs — dependence. Study drugs can create tolerance, requiring higher doses to be taken if they are abused. Further, withdrawal symptoms can occur, including mood swings, depression, and disturbed sleep patterns.
Hannah, a fourth year student, talked to me about how her boyfriend’s frequent use of Vyvanse impacted their relationship. “My boyfriend regularly used it to get coursework done. It really changed his personality,” she said, “90 per cent of the problems in our relationship and the arguments we had were because he was coming down from it”.
Hannah’s boyfriend no longer takes Vyvanse because of the adverse impacts it had on their relationship.
They can also have more serious side effects. Finn, a fourth year international relations student, spoke to me about a time in second year when he stayed up “for over 48 hours” after taking a higher dose than his prescribed Adderall.
“I took more than my prescribed amount and then more, and more, and more. At a certain point it doesn’t help. The brain fog is still there even if you’re still awake,” said Finn, “Then, I experienced really scary hallucinations”.
While the experience made Finn more careful about his Adderall use, it has not made him stop completely. He spent this summer working in a high pressure corporate finance internship in which he heavily relied on Adderall. “To do anything at my internship this summer, I needed it. If I didn’t take it, I would just end up not working and scrolling through TikTok.
“It’s a tool and it shouldn’t be gatekept. Sometimes people with ADHD act like it’s something only they should be able to benefit from. I think anyone who wants it should be able to benefit from it,” Finn said, “If not it ends up becoming a tool only for wealthy students who can get a prescription to use”.
Some students view the use of study drugs as a form of cheating. “I feel it’s an artificial corruption of our natural faculties,” said Alex, a third year French and philosophy student, “It’s about immorality, an unfair advantage, and also a falsification of results. Study drugs don’t reflect one’s true abilities”.
For others, however, study drugs are not dishonest nor miracle workers — they are nothing more than a pick me up. “It doesn’t put the ideas into your head. It doesn’t make you cleverer,” said fourth year Emily, “It’s like having a few espresso shots…only cheaper”.
Most names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons