South African campuses are crawling with drugged up students. Here’s why they need a fix to often fix what isn’t broken in the first place.
Thirty-two years ago, in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson shocked the world. Running against the Usain Bolt of his time, Carl Lewis, Johnson not only managed to leave Lewis choking on his dust, but did so in record time. For a moment in time, the Jamaican-born underdog was the fastest human being to have ever lived. As is the way with all good dramas though, the plot was just about to thicken.
With Lewis and others complaining like people at a customer service centre, Johnson was soon found guilty of doping. His defence was that everyone else was doing it and if he wanted to be competitive and do well in his chosen profession, doping made perfect sense. For students trying to get through their exams, Johnson’s argument is almost mundanely logical.
“Academic doping is very common among students. I’d say probably two thirds of students do it,” says Nonhlanhla Sithole*, a third year student at UCT.
Coined a couple of years ago, the term “academic doping” refers to the practice of taking various drugs, usually those designated to treat ADHD and other attention disorders, to help boost concentration for studying and secure those good marks that parents and future employers seem so obsessed with. According to an article that appeared in the Daily Beast, 35% of US university students take stimulants to help them study.
Speaking in the Netflix documentary Take Your Pills, Dr Wendy Brown, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley said: “At the simplest level, the norms driving the use of performance enhancing drugs are those that simply tell us, ‘your task is to concentrate, to perform at the highest capacity that you possibly can, and to do it for as long as it takes’.” This applies as much to accountants and newspaper editors as it does to pupils trying to ace their final matric geography exam, or getting good marks in varsity.
In fact, it is this unquenchable societal thirst for excellence, that first brought Sithole into contact with Concerta.
“I think I started using it for matric finals. I mean let’s be honest, studying sucks and I’m really bad at it but you obviously need good marks for finals and stuff, so I started using it then so I could study longer,” Sithole says.
While not as famous as its other peers, Adderall and Ritalin, Concerta is a stimulant used to treat ADHD that helps you concentrate, control behaviour issues, stay focused and, generally, become the type of student your parents always lied about being — the one who sits for hours at their bedside table. According to Sithole and other students, it is super easy to get your hands on.
“It’s pretty easy to find on campus. Everyone knows someone who can get you some Ritalin or Concerta,” says Jennifer Sibanda*, a student at the WITS Medical Faculty.
As is common with drugs, study enchancers work by fiddling your dopamine supply. In a 2015 video from the American Chemical Society’s series, Reactions, neuroscientist Dr Ryan Davidson said: “People with ADHD tend to have lower levels of dopamine, the key chemical in the brain’s reward centre. This lack of dopamine means that people are constantly seeking stimulation. Amphetamine [the key ingredient in drugs like Adderall] stimulate the release of dopamine and other neurological transmitters in the brain so that minor distractions don’t cause you to lose focus.”
If you are wondering why the word amphetamine sounds familiar, that is because it is one chemical bond away from being Methamphetamine AKA Tik. Drugs like Concerta and Ritalin are mainly comprised of a chemical called Methylphenidate, which functionally works the same as amphetamine but milder.
In fact, amphetamine can be so effective at boosting focus and warding off sleep that during World War II the Nazis used the stuff to stun Allied forces and push them all the way to the French coast, seemingly marching for days on end without rest. It allowed them to march further for longer and negated the usual cognitive effects of sleep deprivation. Sans the murder and racism, students who take performance enhancers are essentially looking for a similar benefits package. And it turns out it’s pretty easy to find.
Academic doping is very common among students. I’d say probably two thirds of students do it.
According to both Sibanda and Sithole, a lot of the supply comes from students who have prescriptions for ADHD meds and then just sell them to their fellow students.
“It’s kinda pricey. It’s like R200 for four. If I’m trying to study for a course I’m struggling with, or a bunch of courses, then I’d get five,” Sithole says.
On the surface of things, taking something like Concerta is all upside. Your brain runs like a German stereotype. Everything clears up, you study well, your marks go up and you basically become a more efficient human but… of course, there is a ‘but.’ As with all performance enhancers, it’s all fun and games until you use too much. Outside of helping with ADHD, Concerta can be prescribed to help deal with narcolepsy, a sleeping disorder.
“To be honest it’s kind of dangerous. You’ve got to take it really early in the morning otherwise you’re not going to sleep,” says Sithole before detailing how she once took Concerta at 9am and found herself unable to sleep at 2am the next morning. Some of the side effects of these study drugs include: appetite loss, insomnia, restlessness, irritability and possibly, psychosis. Medical professionals also suggest using it cautiously for people with bipolar disorder.
Now for the even bigger ‘but.’ It turns out studying stimulants may be as good at making you smarter as Borstol is at curing everything. In a small study, published in Psychology Today in 2018, a group of university students who did not meet the criteria for ADHD were given a variety of cognitive tests to perform under the influence of Adderall and then under the influence of a placebo. It turned out that there was no real difference in their scores, save how they felt about them. So basically, in much the same way that drinking half a bottle of gin will have you thinking that you’re a better dancer than Michael Jackson, a spot of Adderall will leave you thinking that you’re a genius, when really, you’re just the same Sibusiso who secretly enjoys flat earth videos and spelling “boobless” on his calculator.
This is not to say Ritalin, Adderall or Concerta are entirely useless. Ask your crush about how useful confidence can be. That said, it will not add anything to your brain. Unlike sports doping, academic doping doesn’t make you better, it just makes you feel that way, and that is not a small thing.
Whether for sports or academics, doping happens in competitive environments where the defining mantra is “better”. We live in an academic world that wants more from us. Despite Instagram captions to the contrary, the spectre of perfection stalks our lives. You need great marks in matric so that you can get into a good university. From there, you need to graduate cum laude and get a postgraduate degree so that you can get a high paying job that you’re also super passionate about. Upon seeing how awesome you are at your job and how much you love it, you’ll meet this amazing person and have a beautiful family.
Oh, and all of that needs to be done by the time you are 35.
Given those types of pressures, it is no wonder that students are popping pills to get by. The question is, “at what cost?” More people in and below their 30s are suffering from burnout, depression and anxiety than ever before, all so that we can scramble over one another to grab a slice of a pie that we may not even want. All we know is that we have to get it. We’ll do whatever it takes. Even if it means risking psychosis. To paraphrase Future, “it’s better crying tears in the back of a Maybach”.