Navigating Addiction: Study Drugs

As the semester ends and we’re all getting swamped with assessments and exams, it’s normal to start worrying about how you’re going to cope with all that work. For some students this means planning everything out within an inch of its life, for some it means late night cramming sessions the day before an exam. Some students, however, turn to study drugs.

Study drug is a blanket term for any drug that is seen as a cognitive enhancer, meaning they’re used to improve memory, alertness, or concentration. They’re often used to mask the symptoms of fatigue that students who pull all-nighters face and only produce short-term benefits. Two of the most common study drugs are methylphenidate – which is more commonly known under the brand name Ritalin – and modafinil. Both are prescription medicines with Ritalin used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and modafinil used to treat sleep disorders like narcolepsy.

According to UON Drugs and Alcohol Counsellor Michelle Lampis, there are a wide range of physical risks associated with using study drugs.

“Insomnia, irregular heart rates, headaches, increased blood pressure, people explain feeling confused, feeling nervous and anxious, loss of appetite, vomiting, dizziness,” she says. “These are some of the known side effects.” But these side effects are what’s known in controlled studies, there are also further risks of unknown side effects if the drugs are taken without a prescription.

“These drugs are designed to be taken under medical supervision,” Ms Lampis says. “Taking it not prescribed is an unknown with your own personal reaction to the drug.” The drugs could react to pre-existing health conditions like blood pressure or heart problems or to medicine you’re already taking and cause even more serious problems. Study drugs also have some significant long-term potential side effects like stomach ulcers, mental health and behavioural issues, lowered impulse control, and unusual tiredness.

There’s also the possibility that the drugs could have the opposite effect to what they’re being used for.

“There has been some research that’s come out that’s said that for people who at their baseline have relatively good attention and memory, these substances can actually hinder and impair that,” Ms Lampis says. “So even though research has shown that yes these can be good for attention and memory in people with ADHD, it can have the opposite effect on someone who doesn’t have those problems but is taking them anyway.” Students who’ve taken study drugs have reported completely skipping questions in exams without even realising it or they’ve submitted assessments that are completely incoherent while under the influence.

Beyond the health and academic risks of study drug use, there is also the issue that taking these drugs without a prescription is illegal. In New South Wales, taking or possessing drugs that you don’t have a medical prescription for is an offence.

“There’s a risk there to your future reputation, having a police record,” Ms Lampis says. “These are really important considerations when deciding to take something because it is actually illegal.”

Even with the risks, students take study drugs for a reason and so its important to know that there are safer ways to prepare your brain for all-nighters and exams.

“Sleep is fundamental to brain function. Getting enough sleep, I cannot tell you how much evidence that helps your brain, your concentration, your alertness, and your memory,” Ms Lampis says. “If you did have to pull an all-nighter, get a really good night’s sleep leading up to it.”

Proper diet and nutrition can also help to improve brain function and make you feel better coming into exam periods. Making sure you’re getting enough of the essential nutrients and vitamins that come from a fresh and varied diet is crucial to getting your brain to perform during exam time. Hydration is also important to getting your brain feeling end of the term-ready.

“Even being just slightly dehydrated hugely impacts on your ability to concentrate and your memory,” Ms Lampis says. “Even though you might not feel thirsty, drink regularly and drink a lot because that really does impact on your brain functioning.” Drinking enough water can also be felt pretty quickly as well and you’ll start feeling clearer and better.

Exercise can also be really helpful during the exam period. If you can make time for it, regular exercise has an impact on your whole being including brain function and can also help you burn off some of that stress so you’re feeling a lot more at ease while you’re studying.

If you are having issues with study drug use and are looking for support there are plenty of places you can seek help. To access free drug and alcohol counselling through UON, you can get in contact with Ms Lampis via the UON Counselling Service by emailing counselling@newcastle.edu.au or calling 4921 6622.

Drug and alcohol counselling at UON is completely confidential and seeking help through the University won’t have any repercussions on your academic life. Ms Lampis also wants students to know that if you’re approaching counselling because you think you might have a problem but don’t necessarily want to stop using study drugs yet, she can also offer support with harm minimisation and managing or reducing use over time.

Off-campus, Headspace and Hunter New England Health also offer drug and alcohol counselling services while Beyond Blue (1300 22 46 36) and the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (1800 422 599) have 24-hour helplines that can get you in touch with information and support.