UK students are increasingly turning to prescription drugs such as Ritalin to help them study (photo: Jordan Roberts)

UK students are increasingly turning to prescription drugs such as Ritalin to help them study (photo: Jordan Roberts)

Early morning library users will be familiar with the sight of bug-eyed third years, surrounded by empty cans of energy drink, exhausted after having pulled yet another ‘all-nighter.’ However, The Badger has discovered that for some of them it is not just caffeine that they have been taking to keep themselves awake come exam time.

The well-documented American trend of using prescription drugs to stay awake may be arriving at schools and universities in Britain. There is precious little information on how widespread this type of drug abuse is and media coverage has invariably relied on hearsay and anecdotal evidence to map any increase in the popularity of prescription drugs.

If the use of prescription pills in the UK follows American trends with the drug used most frequently by students to stay awake is Ritalin. This drug is more commonly prescribed to sufferers of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), though is also used to relieve symptoms of chronic fatigue and narcolepsy. The NHS Direct website admits that “it is not completely clear” how drugs like Ritalin work. It is chemically related to illegal types of amphetamine, and is illegal if procured without a prescription.

A few Sussex students have admitted to using Ritalin as a means to help them to study. Margaret – not the interviewee’s real name – earned a good degree last year in humanities and said that she took Ritalin towards the end of her final term. She said that she was given the drug “by a friend at uni, who said that he’d got it from America.” Margaret says that she did not pay for the three or four pills that she took during the last stages of her course. “I had a few pills, and spread them out over a few weeks right at the end of term,” she adds.

“People who weren’t on it drank loads of Redbull…what’s the difference?”

There is a broad consensus of opinion on the negative side effects that drugs like Ritalin produce. These include mood swings, loss of appetite and headaches. There has, however, been little research into the possible long term side affects of prolonged use of drugs like Ritalin. When questioned on whether she was concerned, or even aware, of the health risks involved Margaret replied, “No. I wasn’t planning on taking it very much; just to get me through the course, really.” She says that she has not used the drug since.

Perhaps she felt that she needed the drugs to perform well. Her response was “I don’t normally drink coffee, and I was intrigued …no one sleeps that much at the end, so why not? When asked whether she thought taking drugs like Ritalin gave students an unfair advantage, she replied “No, I think everyone was in a weird mindset. People who weren’t on it drank loads of Redbull…what’s the difference?” She did however go on to say that she “could have done without it.”

Another student, currently enrolled on an MA program at Sussex, has far stronger opinions on the illicit use of prescription drugs in schools. Inderpal, who’s name has been changed, earned his first degree in America, and claims to have seen an ugly side to drugs like Ritalin. Inderpal says that his friends, some of whom were prescribed the drug, “started taking it in high school and continued through college. They’d take it for any kind of minor assignment; some were on it all the time.” There was a thriving black market for “uppers” like Ritalin and Adderall, Inderpal claims that “Kids would get their doctors to give them loads, then sell it.”

Inderpal disagrees with Margaret’s belief that such ‘study drugs’ didn’t offer unfair advantages to students. “On the short term, sure. It would allow people to absorb more information,” however, he said that “they didn’t seem to give a long term advantage. Lots of my friends who took it weren’t particularly good at school anyway.”

There has as of yet been no published study into the illicit use of Ritalin in the UK and no government sponsored investigation into the use of prescription drugs in UK universities. In 2006 Caroline Flint, the then Public Health minister, said that the government was aware of “anecdotal evidence of a black market” for prescription drugs and that “inappropriate use of Ritalin in a school setting should be dealt with in line with school drug policy.” The University of Sussex currently has no specific policy on the use of drugs like Ritalin.

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  • I really enjoyed this article, which raises some interesting and possibly difficult questions for UK universities. The quality of writing was high.
    Let’s have more from Joe!