Study Drugs: a Chemical Cure to End-of-Semester Syndrome?

Students are turning to ‘study drugs’  for the end-of-semester grind. Nikola Jokanovic talks miracle pills and side effects with two UON students.

Between assignments, friends, work hours and Netflix queues, the balancing act of university life is chaos at best. Like putting out a fire on a leaky boat while a tsunami of exam revision approaches, students doing three things at once often lose sight of their academic commitments.

But what if you could do a week’s worth of revision in a weekend, take the ‘work’ out of coursework, tie down that high distinction – and all in a pill? The growing trend of ‘study drugs’ supposedly promises just that, with students using certain substances for focus, motivation and last-minute miracles.

University of Newcastle students James* and Emma* are enrolled in Engineering and Law/Arts respectively. Like many, they make a second home of the Huxley and Auchmuty libraries in the busy weeks. But unlike most, their work there is frequently aided by one of the two most commonly used drugs for studying: prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin, or the wakefulness-promoting agent Modafinil.

James and Emma are just two of a global cohort of students increasingly using study drugs. This past year it was found that 35 percent of British university students had used prescription drugs which weren’t theirs for study. The practice isn’t uncommon in Australia either: “I’ve known about people using stuff like Adderall since first year. It’s well known among most people in my course and not really taboo,” says James.

Prescription stimulants are used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) by promoting focus. Modafinil, used to treat narcolepsy, induces prolonged periods of wakefulness. Neither James nor Emma are hyperactive, or involuntary day-sleepers; so why use them?

For individuals without ADHD, prescription stimulants can induce a state of deep focus, which Emma likens to ‘tunnel vision’. “Doing work is usually a chore, but it becomes effortless, and kind of fun. You just go on for hours, super driven to finish whatever’s in front of you.” Modafinil supposedly provides a subtler and longer-lasting sense of focus, explains James: “you feel a lot less rushy on Modafinil, but still really focused. On Ritalin I’ll sometimes not bother to take breaks or eat, but on Modafinil I’ll just have a nice focus all day in between everything else.” The preference? Whatever’s around, say both.

The use of these drugs is seemingly a symptom of the hyper-busy, three-things-at-once lifestyle of many modern students. “They basically have two uses for me,” explains Emma. “Either I’ll use them ahead of time to clear up my schedule if I’m busy, like doing a lot of reading or an assignment before it’s due. Or it’s for help with last-minute assignments and exams.” Between five courses, work, placement, sports and social life, James feels his somewhat more frequent and routine use is needed. “I’m honestly not sure how this past semester would have gone without it, especially towards the end,” he admits.


Ritalin is one of the more common prescription drugs used by students as a study drug. Image: Adam/FGMB via Wikimedia Commons, no changes made.


And of course, no miracle pill is without its fine-print side effects. Experts have stressed the often-underestimated health risks raised by study drugs, and the blurred lines between occasional use, abuse and dependence. Though often taken innocuously with a morning coffee, prescription stimulants are in fact only a few molecular steps away from methamphetamine, and the implications can be similar. A 2013 study identified addiction, using drugs for repeated ‘all-nighters’ and an inability to work productively without them as major health risks associated with study drugs.

“I wouldn’t say I’m dependent, but I do think a fair bit of what I managed to do last term was because of using them, which I’m not happy about,” says James. “I tried to keep it just a last resort, but I definitely ended up using them to keep on top of things at points.” Emma sees it differently: “I know what I’m taking, and I’m careful not to overdo it. So I’ve never felt it very dangerous.”

UON Health and Welfare Advisor Noel Gueco says that although study drugs aren’t a hard-and-fast hazard, students are largely better off without them. “Study drugs have this effect of associative behaviour. Imagine someone gets a HD because they used some Ritalin. It makes them go, ‘well, if I don’t use Ritalin, does that mean I won’t get a HD?’ or ‘I got the mark not because I studied, but because I took Ritalin.’” Noel notes that study drugs, most of which are stimulants, interfere with two processes he says are just important to learning as actually studying: eating well, and getting enough sleep. “There’s a lot of downside for very little upside to it. While you can maybe cram for an assignment, that short-term study doesn’t become long-term memory. That’s the trade-off – immediate gratification for the long-term.”

A number of options are available at the University of Newcastle for students struggling with drug use (study-related or not), academic issues, or university life in general. Counselling services, both in-person and online are available at Callaghan, Ourimbah, NeWSpace and Port Macquarie. eCLIPSE is a blended online and in-person (or over the phone) counselling service, which features a ten-week program designed to help students experiencing issues with drug use. All are confidential. For students experiencing issues with their academic performance, the Learning Development team have a range of services available.

Students really struggling might have difficulty speaking up themselves, however. “If someone has a friend that’s taking drugs and if they’re concerned about them, be brave enough to have that conversation,” says Noel. “Something like ‘hey, I’ve noticed that you’re isolating in your room or using those to study a lot and not taking care of yourself, I’m worried’, or inviting them to re-engage. I think it falls not only on the person struggling but on others witnessing.”

Study drugs currently occupy a number of overlapping grey areas of legality, ethics and health. Some are calling for their use to be tested for before exams, on the same ethical grounds of cheating and unfair advantage by which performance-enhancing drugs are tested for in sport. Others call for a rethinking and acceptance of the use of the supposedly safer study drugs, namely Modafinil, given their already widespread use. It may still take some years to fully sketch the lines between right and wrong, or safe and unsafe; students would best be knowledgeable and wary of the supposed miracle pill of study drugs in the meantime.

Noel put it best. “Like they say, ‘university is a marathon, not a sprint’. If you’re sprinting for five years straight, it’s gonna catch up with you.”

*Names have been changed.

Feature Image:  Amy Lewis