Running on Ritalin

Leanne Healy talks to students who use the taboo “study drug” during exam season

Caffeine alone is no longer sufficient for an extra energy boost during exam season. Thanks to so-called “study drugs”, many university students across Ireland are studying for hours on end with the help of cognitive enhancing pills. Ritalin, a prescription drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is designed to increase an individual’s ability to focus through boosting the levels of dopamine in the body. Ritalin and other “study drugs” boost energy, alertness and concentration in those who take it.

Trinity News spoke to students in Trinity who take the drug Ritalin and other similar medications in order to increase their focus around exam season. When asked why they started taking Ritalin, one student explains: “I’ve never been able to focus on doing things, whether it’s in class or doing assignments, and I had heard a lot about Ritalin from friends of mine as it’s very common for people to take around exam season.” They go on to say that “last exam period I started taking it properly when I went to the library in order to get my assignments done on time; I had about eight massive essays due and couldn’t focus without taking it”. Another student has been a frequent Ritalin user for some time, having started taking it in sixth year to help relieve the stress of the Leaving Cert explaining that they “started because it was easily available and everyone in school was taking it and I felt I needed it when the stress of exams came”. One student confesses: “I have always thought I have ADHD but have never been diagnosed so I turned to taking matters in my own hands and self medicating in a way”.

“As so many students take Ritalin, it raises some questions—how is it so readily available and where do students get it?”

As so many students take Ritalin, it raises some questions   how is it so readily available and where do students get it? “Personally I get it from people I know who have diagnosed ADHD” responded one user, with another replying they get it “either off a dealer or from my friend who has it prescribed for her ADHD”.

As many “study drugs” are prescribed to treat ADHD, the effects the drugs would have on a person without ADHD would differ from that of a person diagnosed with ADHD. A student with ADHD, who is prescribed Ritalin, explains that the drug “allows me to sit down and focus on one thing for a short time. When I take it and go to do an assignment, the first thing I do isn’t my assignment but it’s deep clean my room which I noticed due to the Ritalin”. The student explains how “if you need [Ritalin], it just lets you concentrate a little more than the average person”. However, one student who does not have ADHD yet takes Ritalin explains how in a day they can “study for eight hours with a ten minute break and everything studied is absorbed”. Another student explains: “I would take it and within half an hour I would become very focused on whatever I’m doing it makes me feel less agitated and more concentrated”. They go on to explain how they “would be able to sit for two to three hours uninterrupted and work the entire time, whereas without [Ritalin] I would be going for breaks every 20-30 minutes”.

When asked whether they fear becoming over-reliant on Ritalin around exam time, one student responded: “Yes and no. Sometimes I fear that I won’t be able to work without it, which is bad for many reasons but especially the financial side of things it’s not feasible to be buying it weekly”. However, they pointed out that  “there’s only one year of college left for me after this and realistically I won’t be doing any more exams or assignments after that (hopefully) so I can’t see a reason that I would need to take it again after college”. The student highlighted that “because it’s such a short period of my life that I’m taking it for I don’t see a problem with it”. Another Ritalin user replied: “I am completely reliant on them. Sometimes if I try to go back to study after taking Ritalin, it is very hard to study and have the same level of focus, obviously. You have to try and phase it out”.

Ritalin, like every drug, has its side effects. These side effects can include trouble sleeping, weight loss, decreased appetite, nausea, nervousness and headaches in those who take it. One student responded that “thankfully” they do not suffer from any side effects, whereas another noted “severe dry mouth and wide pupils” were their main reactions to the drug. 

“I used to envy people so much who could sit all day and study, and now when I take it I feel it’s just making me on the same page as them.”

Since many students who take Ritalin do not suffer from ADHD, it may seem like their heightened concentration and focus as a result of taking the drug provides an unfair advantage. However, one student responded that they “feel like it brings me up to speed. I used to envy people so much who could sit all day and study, and now when I take it I feel it’s just making me on the same page as them. As well as this, I took it lots last term and I didn’t do exceptionally well or much better than I usually do; it just made me able to concentrate and get all my work done by the deadlines”. Another student stated that “it’s not an unfair advantage because if you want it you can get it. It’s your choice whether you want to take it or not, it’s not like I am cheating”.

One student highlights how “more people take it than you think and a lot of people don’t talk about it because it is a bit taboo. Maybe it’s because they don’t want people to think that they’re enhancing their abilities or that they’re reliant on it”.

There are a variety of cognition enhancing medications out there, resulting in some students experimenting with different brands. Concerta, another ADHD medication, is also popular among students and is described as “slower-release than Ritalin”. One student “would take Concerta more than Ritalin because Ritalin is quite intense”. 

The demand for “study drugs” in Ireland is rising rapidly and does not seem to be stopping anytime soon. Something is clearly wrong with the higher education system in Ireland if students are turning to cognitive enhancing “study drugs” in order to manage the pressure of college and the burden brought on by heavily-weighted end-of-year examinations. This begs the question, is it time to look at different ways of assessing students?