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Getting the Grade: The Use of ‘Study Drugs’ Among Students

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A drug user’s motivations are often dark. Like Jim Carrey’s character in the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the aim of drug abuse may be to forget, to have the brain swabbed clean of painful memories; to achieve the ‘spotless mind’ one must get rid of the spots.

Rarely is a user’s aim to remember. But, as reported by The New York Times in early June 2012, there is a growing concern among secondary school educators about students’ abuse of prescription drugs, specifically the drug Adderrall. A drug prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Adderrall is an amphetamine designed to focus a hyperactive mind, and to help a user be more productive. Rather than blur the user’s world, it is a drug that aims to sharpen it.

For students facing ever-bleak college admission statistics, that ‘sharper world’ is replete with grueling hours of study and examination. Overwhelmed by the pressures of school and securing an academic future, American students have found a quick solution in Adderrall, a drug which allows them to study longer and more efficiently.

The demand is there. And so, as the article details, is the supply. For several years, the frequency with which ADHD is diagnosed has been criticized; a recent study in Germany has found that the condition is over-diagnosed. Thereby, Adderrall – and its counterpart Ritalin – are over-prescribed, and those young people who receive the prescription may find it more to their advantage – that is, financial advantage – to sell the drug among their peers, rather than use it themselves.

In a response article, Mark Kleiman argues that the abuse of Adderrall and Ritalin – also known as ‘study drugs’ – does not warrant another tolling of the drug abuse alarm bell. He makes a distinction between the motivations behind using: one is with the hopes of hurting oneself, the other with bettering oneself. Therefore, action to prevent use must be different.

But I wonder if the motives really are so unique from one another. If a young person is willing to abuse substances to get better grades – the difference perhaps between a B and an A – is he of sound mind? I am inclined to say, no. I do believe that the response to this kind of abuse should be different; it may be as simple as parents encouraging a more holistic focus on personhood, and working to help students recognize that there is more to one’s self-value than examination results.

I was a student a year ago; not in secondary school of course, but at a university. It was common to hear of friends using ‘study drugs’ for late-night study sessions, and to get through the next day’s exams. The talk was light, and users – or friends of users, including myself – rarely showed concern. The recent NYT article warns that Adderrall and Ritalin can be gateway drugs. Reflecting on the people I know who have used either of these substances, it’s hard to discern if someone so set on academic achievement will turn to harder drugs. But why should the ‘nerd’ mentality be dismissed as harmless? Why can’t the drive for success, when pushed too far, become a much less productive motive?

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