Surveys suggest 1 in 10 university students are purchasing prescription only drugs online, the most common being modafinil, to get them through their degree. Modafinil is often prescribed to those with narcolepsy, as it keeps users awake. When used as a study drug, students say it increases focus and attention. They risk side-effects, which can include, and are not limited to, headaches, palpitations, increased anxiety and trouble sleeping.
Alastair Jeffrey, Head of Enforcement at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency told us, when you buy medicine online, you can’t ever be sure it’s safe. You don’t know where it was manufactured, how it’s been stored or if it’s the real product. Also, without it being prescribed by a GP, a medical professional can’t tell you if you’ll have an adverse reaction to it, if it will react to any other medicines you’re taking, and if you’re taking a safe dosage.
Alastair also pointed out the financial risk students face – when the MHRA “test purchases” medicine online to see if they’re being sold on the criminal market, 18-20% of the time the credit card they paid with is used for fraudulent transactions after.
So why are students turning to study drugs despite these potential risks?
Dr. Dominique Thompson, a national expert on student mental health who has had 78,000 GP consultations with students, ascribes this to the increased pressures young people face – from academic to personal issues. 1 in 2 young people now go to university, 1 in 4 students get a first in their degrees and so competition is rife. Therefore, students drive themselves harder and harder to stand out in society and find their solution by turning to study drugs.
Professor Barbara Sahakian of the Department of Psychiatry at The University of Cambridge told us our society is starting to lose the ability to pay attention. Constant emails and texts barrage us daily, videos on social media are getting shorter. We’re gaining an ability to switch rapidly between different tasks, but we’re losing our ability to focus on one job.
Professor Sahakian has also written extensively on the ethics of
using study drugs and explained there are philosophers who believe we should do all we can to better ourselves, so we can further humanity with new discoveries. However, in an academic environment, there are those which would consider it cheating. It leads to a dilemma – if more people start taking these cognitive-enhancing drugs, would everyone need to in order to keep up with their colleagues?
There isn’t yet a solid conclusion to any of these points. There are no long term studies into the effect of modafinil on healthy individuals and Professor Sahakian explained to us the brain doesn’t often fully develop until the ages of 24-25. As more young people are taking it, there isn’t enough data to know if and how they’re affecting their health.
It’s also not only students taking these drugs – studies suggest there are those in high-pressured workplaces taking modafinil to get through their work.
The prevailing question remains – is the use of study drugs symptomatic of an increasingly high-pressured society rapidly losing the ability to focus? With the rise of AIs and overpopulation, the competition to gain and keep a great job is increasing and the need to stand out grows even stronger.
Any societal change means the rules and ethics of society shifts and evolves. Where do we go next and are these so-called smart drugs a smart choice?
Your university student support services can help with any pressures you are facing.
Immediately call your local GP for any adverse side-effects from taking study drugs.
Tel: 0808 808 4994
The Mix is a charity which offers support to under 25s and they can look at your situation and also help point you towards organisations which may be able to offer further assistance.
You can call them free on 0808 808 4994 (open 4pm – 11pm every day) or speak to them on their one-to-one online services.
Tel: 0845 790 9090
The Samaritans are open 24 hours a day and you can speak to them about any of your problems, no matter how big or small – they will listen.
One of our contributors, Dr. Dominique Thompson delivered a TEDx Talk about the pressures students face entitled, What I learnt from 78,000 GP consultations with university students. It explores the issues young students are now facing.