Ritalin: The Key to Academic Success?

A Look at the Popularity of ADD Meds as Study Aids

Graphic Sam Jones

Juggling school, work and the gym – and still having time for a social life – isn’t easy. Students resort to different strategies to cope with the pressure. Some don’t work during the school year and possibly accumulate debt. Others take fewer classes and prolong their stay.

Sophia Nelson, an accounting student at UQAM, is able to do all of it while still scoring “A”s in her classes. Her secret: Ritalin. “I found that I often got distracted and bored when studying,” Nelson said. “Ritalin helps me stay focused and give that extra push in completing my tasks.”

Students are increasingly using drugs like Ritalin and Adderall as study aids. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, five to 35 per cent of North American adolescents and young adults are using Ritalin without a prescription.With midterms just around the corner, students are finding themselves cramming for exams and rushing to meet deadlines.

“I have a really busy schedule and therefore have very little time to study,” said Nelson. Seeing as this can be a stressful time for university students, some are resorting to stimulants to help them get through the exam period. Nelson said that she uses Ritalin to boost her productivity in the little time she has. “I use it to maximize my study sessions,” she said.

Statistics suggest that the use of Ritalin in Canada is a growing issue, especially in Quebec. Statistics Canada reports that prescriptions for psychostimulants have tripled since Quebec introduced mandatory drug insurance in 1997. The effects of psychostimulants that appeal so much to students are wakefulness and an improved ability to focus. Nelson says she uses Ritalin to study even though she does not have ADHD or ADD. “One study day could mean I use one to two pills,” she said.

Nelson admits that using 40 pills a semester isn’t uncommon. Her main concern is her dependence on the drug and the consequences it might have on her future. “I feel like there’s so much to always do that I can’t do it without Ritalin,” she said.

Nelson admits that using 40 pills a semester isn’t uncommon. Her main concern is her dependence on the drug and the consequences it might have on her future. “I feel like there’s so much to always do that I can’t do it without Ritalin,” she said.

The Controlled Drug and Substance Act of Canada classifies methylphenidate (the chemical name for Ritalin) as a Schedule III narcotic—the same category as LSD and mescaline. To obtain a prescription for Ritalin, one usually has to go through several tests so that a physician can assess whether medication is necessary. But contrary to what one might think, getting hold of Ritalin can be rather easy.

“I told my doctor I was feeling distracted at work and he gave me a prescription for Ritalin,” said Tyler Bridge, a former Concordia student. According to the Canadian Drug Shortage Database, the over-prescription of Ritalin accounts for several of its back orders this year. Diagnosis and treatment for ADD and ADHD has increased tremendously and has become a commonly diagnosed disorder in children. The fact that Ritalin is now so frequently prescribed means that it is now also more available on the black market.

According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, Ritalin users who are not diagnosed with ADD or ADHD often get medication through a friend or buy it from a drug dealer who has a legitimate prescription of the drug. “I got Ritalin off friends who usually sell me a pill for $5,” Nelson said.

Stimulants are federally controlled medications, yet some students are using them without considering the possible risks. There have been reports of sudden deaths from people taking drugs of this kind. Health Canada even banned Adderall XR—a longer-lasting type of stimulant—in 2005 for this reason. Yves Dubeau, a pharmacist for Jean Coutu, explains that in terms of chemical composition Ritalin is similar to street drugs. “It’s like speed,” he said. “It causes insomnia, which is why a lot of students are using it to study through the night.”

Experts say that teens and young adults use Ritalin for recreational purposes as well. “Sometimes I was so happy I couldn’t concentrate,” Nelson said. Pills can be consumed orally, intravenously or through nasal inhalation, in which case the medication is crushed into a powder form. People have reported taking Ritalin to enhance alertness during a night of partying or simply to get high. To produce an even greater high, they combine an excessive amount of pills with alcohol or energy drinks.

Other than restlessness, common side effects include heart palpitations, decreased appetite, anxiety and irritability. Nelson explains that the “happy period” of her Ritalin sessions was short lived. “I usually felt very isolated and easily aggravated towards the end” said Nelson. She also says that she doesn’t eat while on Ritalin and that she has trouble swallowing. She often felt guilty if she got little work done. “My thoughts had a much more negative ring to them,” Nelson says.

As her happiness decreased, so did her appetite. For this reason, people looking to lose weight often resort to Ritalin and its sister drugs to slim down. Questions have been raised about the impact Ritalin has on student’s grades and if people abusing Ritalin have an advantage over others. Studies suggest that the illegal use of Ritalin does not improve grades. Still, some professionals argue that using Ritalin without a prescription is equivalent to cheating. To prevent this trend from accelerating, many schools provide students with services to help them cope.

Concordia University has an Access Centre for Students with Disabilities and the Student Success Centre offers tutors and workshops, in addition to Counselling and Development and Health Services. Health Canada studies show that Ritalin abuse continues to be a rising issue, but Dubeau is not too concerned about long-term dependency. “For most students it’s only a temporary thing,” he said.

Nelson hopes she doesn’t use Ritalin for the rest of her life, but worries about her ability to concentrate without it. “It’s not going to get easier and I’ll probably still need it after I graduate,” she said.

Names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.