A for Effort… Or Adderall

One day left until the final exam, and she wasn’t prepared – at all. With the stream of final papers, exams, and responsibilities that she had already crossed off her list, she had exhausted all of her energy, focus, and time. Feeling trapped and overwhelmed, she knew she was going to fail her next exam. For her, and for thousands of students across North America, salvation came in the form of a small pill called Adderall.

Facing intense academic pressure and high levels of competition, it is no surprise that students use drugs to enhance their academic performance and gain a competitive advantage. Illegal Adderall usage and sales have craftily flown under the university’s radar, as students’ ethics have flown out the window. While the statistics on college usage – and the imminent health consequences – are alarming, what is more worrisome is the failing of McGill University to address the pressing matter.

While sound statistics on this topic are scarce, CTV News cites research approximating that 30 percent of American university students and 11 percent of Canadian students are exploiting Adderall without having ADHD. A voluntary survey conducted by The Bull & Bear with McGill students in January 2013 suggested that Adderall’s popularity may be even higher. Only 7.3 percent of respondents had a medical prescription for ADD/ADHD medicine, while an astounding 81 percent had sold or provided the pills to other students. 377 of the 590 respondents had taken Adderall without a prescription and 89.2 percent of the 377 had done so for academic purposes.

Before we pass judgment, it is important to understand the students’ perspective. It is easy to see how a stress-ridden college student, filled to the brim with coursework and crushed by the pressures of academic competition, could succumb to the temptation of an easy fix. In Roger Cohen’s New York Times article entitled “The Competition Drug,” he quotes an anonymous teenager: “Look, I am in a culture that constantly justifies the means to an end. All you hear is how impossible it will be to get a job… and you think without this I won’t be top of the class. With other drugs you know you are ruining your life, but Adderall manipulates you into thinking you are doing what is needed to have a great life.” This thought process is one which exists among many, and which is the result of the failings of the academic and societal system.

Particularly, students believe that taking Adderall will improve their GPA. But there is a fundamental flaw in this idea. Taking Adderall does not give you a guaranteed A; it increases focus, but cannot improve intelligence, creativity, or critical thinking. The dilemma in this false notion is twofold. Even if students don’t see improvements in their grades, the deluded belief that usage will lead to a GPA increase is so strong that usage doesn’t stop. After all, if GPAs were rising in correlation to Adderall usage, McGill’s exams and performance evaluations would not actually be testing for critical thinking, but rather memorization and content regurgitation.

According to a study in the USCience Review, a number of recurrent justifications were found amongst undiagnosed students for taking Adderall: students believed Adderall to be harmless since it isn’t an illegal drug, unlike more harmful drugs such as ecstasy. Furthermore, students felt that Adderall  is not a health risk when taken in moderation, and that the amphetamines in the drug are a “socially acceptable anti-fatigue aid” like coffee or Red Bull. Comically, from this study, it appears that some of our brightest students are either not bright enough to inform themselves about the drug they’re taking, or not intelligent enough to think their findings through. The rationalization is attained through weak, almost delusional, logic and a potent whiff of wishful thinking.

We, as students, have a very casual attitude about Adderall. It boils down to the fundamental belief that Adderall is safe. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. While Adderall may get you that A, the costs can be unexpectedly high. Not only is unprescribed use illegal, it also destroys your body’s natural systems. Prolonged use of Adderall can lead to dependence: once you stop taking the drug, you can develop a lack of motivation, extreme fatigue, and an inability to concentrate. This means that you can’t rely on your body to perform at its best on its own, creating a vicious cycle necessitating continual use.

Most importantly, Adderall is classified as having high potential for abuse and is extremely addictive, sharing the same categorization as cocaine, morphine, and opium. For those that abuse the drug or use it for a prolonged period of time off-prescription, the consequences can frightening. Countless cases exist of Adderall-induced paranoia, depression, psychiatric breakdowns, and 12 Adderall-related deaths that were reported just last year in Canada. The label on the drug even states that it “can cause heart attacks, strokes, and even sudden death” – evidently, a small price to pay for a great GPA.

If that hasn’t scared you out of using, perhaps your conscience will be your guide. Adderall abuse reflects a moral failing. Many of us competed to get into McGill and are still competing for top grades. If you don’t have an attention deficit problem, your performance on Adderall is simply fraudulent advertising of what you are capable of. Your competitive advantage is a lie and you’re allowing people to have higher expectations of you than you deserve. You’re cheating. Do you really deserve to be at McGill if you can’t keep up without abusing prescription medication?

But let’s be realistic: those who cheat will continue to do so, because they don’t really see it as cheating. Adderall abusers have already rationalized their actions. The health consequences hardly faze students, and sellers will continue to supply as long as there is a demand. The verdict is in: academic success is the priority at all costs, and leaving frequent Adderall users responsible to stop for themselves is futile. The responsibility must fall upon McGill.

Yet McGill has failed us. Clearly, Adderall is a risk to student health and societal values, and yet its abuse is perpetuated within universities. While McGill imposes tight policies and condemns other forms of cheating, they have hardly done anything to monitor and reduce Adderall usage.

However, red flags need to be raised not just to McGill, but several universities in Canada when it comes to raising awareness and reducing Adderall abuse. I researched the mental health and general health websites of University of Toronto, UBC, Queen’s, and University of Calgary, only to find negligible information or resources on the matter. Baffled, I tried calling each of the universities’ mental and general health services. The results were shameful. The health services of University of Toronto “didn’t know of any services on the subject”. University of Calgary’s mental health services was dumbfounded at my question and transferred me to the Director Associate of Counseling, who unfortunately had to ask me what Adderall was. UBC stated that they do not have any direct seminars or services against Adderall abuse but they do provide ‘academic coaches’ which helps students find effective study methods and grasp the concept of their studies. Queen’s put me on hold for 6 minutes before I decided to give up. Overall, McGill isn’t going down alone; the lack of research, awareness and action against the issue is prevalent among several Canadian universities.

Adderall is the anabolic steroid of academics. Testing for steroids and doping amongst athletes is a common practice and those who are caught are disqualified. Shouldn’t the general principle apply for academics? It isn’t feasible for university midterms and finals, but testing for major examinations such as the GRE, LSAT, or the MCAT should be practiced. It takes roughly 6 weeks for Adderall to leave the blood system and those caught before entering the exam should have to face certain consequences.

Adderall is the elephant in the room. So many are using it, yet no action is being taken (or even spoken of) at McGill. In fact, Adderall abuse is a concerningly understudied problem across Canada. So why hasn’t McGill taken the initiative to start? As the leading school in Canada, McGill should be the pioneer and lead the way when it comes to openly spreading awareness and reducing abuse. McGill, are you ready to step up to the bat?

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.