Popping pills: Do study drugs actually affect academic performance?

Leaving things to the last minute requires solid concentration skills to get everything done, and popping pills or guzzling caffeine and energy drinks to finish that essay is a common narrative among students.

Coffee, energy drinks, and drugs that treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), like Adderall, are what the scientific community call “stimulants”— substances that excite and speed up the brain to increase alertness, attention, and energy, according to Health Canada.

But should students rely on stimulants to help them study, and do they actually impact academic performance?

Why do students use study drugs?

Charlotte Halliday, a third-year psychology student at Carleton University, said she uses caffeine and Adderall to help combat the anxiety of completing last-minute assignments and studying.

“For writing I find it helps to keep me motivated and on track. It’s almost like euphoric thinking—your brain is just making so many little connections so much faster,” she said.

Halliday said that while she drinks coffee every day to keep herself energized, she only uses prescription stimulants as a last resort to face immediate academic deadlines.

“I’d rather give it my all [when writing exams] and Adderall would give me the chance to do that instead of feeling super anxious,” she said. “It’s not something I would take three weeks in advance. I only use it when it’s like two days in advance and I know I can’t get it all done.”

But sometimes the stimulant is almost too stimulating, Halliday said, noting the fast-paced influx of ideas can be overwhelming.

“Your ideas are just like trees, blooming too fast. It’s almost hard to keep up with it all,” she said.

The 2013 National College Health Assessment found 3.7 per cent of students reported using a stimulant they had not been prescribed.

Marc-André Gagnon, a Carleton professor with the School of Public Policy and Administration who is an expert on pharmaceutical policy, said students are taking non-prescription stimulants to increase academic performance.

He said it is “hugely accessible and financially attainable” for students to access study drugs like Adderall.

“Most of the teenagers [are] getting these drugs . . . not because they have been diagnosed with ADHD, but because they want to improve their grades, so they find alternative ways to find [the drugs],” Gagnon said.

He added at elite schools there are probably higher ratios of students relying on study drugs.

Other students, however, are prescribed Adderall to manage ADHD symptoms.

Dilan Arslan, a fifth-year communications student, said she was prescribed Adderall to help her concentrate, particularly in times with a heavier and more stressful workload.

“I was diagnosed with ADHD during my third year at Carleton,” Arslan said. “I was prescribed Adderall after [other drugs] didn’t really work for me. [Adderall also] didn’t work for me or make me feel more productive, it just made me more anxious.”

What happens when the energy fades?

Last year, Health Canada issued a warning against drugs such as Adderall due to several cases of suicidal behaviour in young people taking the drugs for ADHD.

But Renelle Briand, media relations officer for Health Canada, said the drug is still authorized to treat the disorder.

“Health Canada will continue to monitor the safety of [Adderall] and we will take action as necessary to make sure its benefits continue to outweigh its risks,” Briand said via email.

Arslan said while she was taking Adderall, she experienced a depressive downfall of energy.

“I mostly felt very energetic for the first three hours and I felt like I could do a lot of work, but despite all that energy I still wasn’t able to concentrate very well,” Arslan said. “[I] experience[d] heightened energy for the first few hours, but then . . . a lowness—for me it felt almost like a depression. That just made it not worth it.”

Dan Orsterer, the program and project management officer with Ottawa Public Health, said more youth are using prescription drugs without the care of a doctor.

“We know that Ottawa students are more likely to use prescription drugs non-medically rather than other illicit drugs such as hallucinogens, cocaine, or ecstasy,” he said.

Gagnon said longterm use of such drugs can have developmental effects on students’ bodies.

“The problem is that after some weeks the effect will be lower so you need higher dosage, and especially when you are young your brain is still forming and this can create problems with the chemistry of the brain,” he said. “We see the rate of depression and change of mood becoming way more important in students taking these drugs than not.”

Gagnon added he realizes these drugs can help many students overcome tight deadlines, but advised against taking them without the guidance of a doctor.

Briand similarly said individuals can become “dependant or addicted to caffeine,” including coffee and caffeine supplements.

“Caffeine supplements should only be used ocassionally by adults typically ingesting no more than 200 mg per single dose every four hours as needed to a maxiumum of 1000 mg per day,”
she said.

For Arslan, she said even excess coffee can cause her sleep and anxiety issues. Now, she doesn’t drink it at all.

“When you have a pre-existing condition, for me it is anxiety, these types of drugs don’t really work because they are stimulants,” she said.

Falling into the black market

Orsterer recommends students only obtain academic performance drugs, especially those used to treat ADHD, from a credible source. He also warned students about the exposure risk to deadly opioids like Fentanyl.

“Obtaining drugs from a non-medical source such as a friend, ordering online, or a drug dealer is very risky and potentially life-threatening as there is no way to know what is actually in them or how toxic they may be,” Orsterer said.

Gagnon added obtaining these drugs from the black market can lead to experimentation with other, more dangerous substances.

“They start relying on them to manage their mood, and this is where they might begin experimenting with other things such as opioids,” he said.

“I’d rather give it my all [when writing exams] and Adderall would give me the chance to do that instead of feeling super anxious. It’s not something I would take three weeks in advance. I only use it when it’s like two days in advance and I know I can’t get it all done.”

—Charlotte Halliday,

third-year psychology student at Carleton University

Do stimulants actually improve academic performance?

The effects of stimulants are just perceived by students because there are no cognitive enhancements detected when taking the drugs, according to an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by Daniel Rosenfield—a Faculty of Medicine professor at the University of Toronto.

“Students who think simply popping a pill will improve their grades or give them new-found academic abilities are sorely mistaken,” Rosenfield said.

Rosenfield said universities need to make a better effort at addressing these myths and risks, as is done with anti-smoking and binge drinking campaigns.

“The majority of students who inappropriately use these medications have good intentions but may simply need reliable information or resources to make good choices,” he said.

Halliday said students shouldn’t feel they have to take these drugs to achieve high academic scores. She agreed that universities should take a different approach to limit students feeling the need to consistently drink coffee and take productivity-enhancing drugs.

“Everyone is supposed to work at the same speeds, but that just isn’t realistic and won’t produce the same level of work in all people, so I think if [universities] took a more individualistic approach students may not feel like they need to take such drugs,” Halliday said.

– Graphics by Christophe Young