As the end of the semester rolls around and students are feeling the pressure of exams, some have turned to what is being referred to as, performance-enhancing drugs, to help them cope with exam stress.
The most common of these drugs is medication intended for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) including Ritalin and Adderall, which are thought to improve concentration and short-term memory while studying for and writing exams.
Amy Porath-Waller, Senior Research and Policy Analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse says there is no evidence proving effectiveness for using these medications.
“Although stimulants increase alertness, focus and attention, the evidence does not appear to suggest any improvements in academic or cognitive performance,” says Porath-Waller.
McMaster University Mental Health Nurse, Debra Earl, says she is aware that students are using prescription drugs for non-medicinal purposes.
“As a healthcare provider, I am aware these kinds of stimulating substances used for ADD have some value on the street,” says Earl. “We’re aware of the problem, we’re not actively doing anything about it because we can’t really measure how big the problem is.”
An editorial by the Canadian Medical Association Journal estimates that 5 to 35 per cent of university students abuse prescription medication, including methylphenidate and atomoxetine, which are found in medication for ADD.
In order to get a hold of these medications, some students seek to be diagnosed for ADD.
“The diagnosis of ADD needs to come from a psychiatrist or a psychologist who does extensive testing and evaluating in order to determine the diagnosis and then medications are only prescribed at that point,” says Earl. “We do have quite a few students coming in wanting to be assessed [for ADD], unless they have a history of it at a young age it’s unlikely [they’ll be diagnosed.]”
Some students drink excessive amounts of caffeine as a performance-enhancing drug, so they can concentrate on studying or pull an all-nighter to study, which Earl says is not effective either.
“Students think that [caffeine] is enhancing because it does allow them to maintain their study pace, but they don’t get the connection between that and disturbed sleep,” says Earl. “If their sleep is disturbed, they’re not able to process the information they’ve been studying.”
McMaster and other universities in Canada have been providing support services for students, to help them cope with exam stress. Some of the efforts include bringing in puppies for students to play with, providing extra study spaces, and offering free study snacks.