Students use and abuse stimulant drugs

Drugs used to treat attention disorders are used in a variety of ways on Dalhousie campus.

Stimulants, such as Ritalin, are used as a study aid by some Dalhousie students. (Photo Clare Shrybman)

Pharmaceutical drugs such as Ritalin, Dexedrin and Concerta, are used in a variety of ways on Dalhousie campus. The medication, commonly prescribed to treat forms of ADHD, is taken by students—some with prescriptions, some without.

Glenn Andrea, medical director for health services at Dalhousie, says he knows students use these medications recreationally on campus.

“I’ve had patients tell me anecdotally that they have crushed and snorted some of these medications to get sort of a more rapid amphetamine effect,” he says.

Andrea says patients of his have obtained these medications from their friends and used them as a study enhancing drug.

Legal Use

Megan Ellacott, a fourth-year student completing a bachelor of management degree at Dalhousie, was diagnosed with ADD when she was nine. Ellacott stopped taking medication for the disorder when she was in elementary school but began to notice she was having more difficulty with her school work last year.

“I couldn’t sit through my three-hour lectures. I couldn’t even read a chapter of the textbook,” Ellacott says.

Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD, is one of two types of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD occurs in five to 12 per cent of school-age children worldwide, and 60 per cent of those diagnosed are still affected by the disorder into adulthood.

Students who have either of the subtypes of ADHD may struggle with regulating attention, time management, fidgeting, feeling internal restlessness, problems with impulsivity and talking too much or at inappropriate times.

Ellacott takes Vyvanse, an ADHD medication, during the week in order to complete her coursework and be able to pay attention in class. She began the medication last year and noticed a dramatic increase in her GPA after.

She gets her prescriptions from the Dalhousie clinic and says that once she provided her previous psychological testing from childhood, she was able to get the medication.

Ellacott says she has been approached by other students who ask for some of her medication to help them study during the exam period.

The Drugs

Ritalin, Dexedrine and other pharmaceuticals prescribed for attention disorders are more tightly monitored than other medications because they have a “potential for abuse and street value,” Andrea says.

Nova Scotia, unlike some other Canadian provinces, has a prescription monitoring board which helps to prevent the abuse of certain prescription drugs.

When a physician prescribes a medication that is monitored, such as stimulants prescribed for attention disorders, a copy of the prescription is forwarded to the board by the pharmacy where it was filled. If a patient happens to be receiving multiple prescriptions from various doctors and clinics, the board will then notify the prescribing physicians.

“Even Ontario, which is a very forward-thinking province, doesn’t have a monitoring board for this sort of thing, but Nova Scotia has had it for decades,” he says.

What this also means is that students moving to the province for school who require such medication might have more difficulty acquiring the prescription than they are used to back home, as more documentation is required to receive the prescription.

It also helps to prevent the abuse of the medication by students on the campus who are trying to use it without a prescription and medical supervision.

Joseph Sadek, an associate professor in Dalhousie’s department of psychiatry, says psychostimulants are among the most commonly abused pharmaceutical drugs.

Using them recreationally can be harmful to the individual’s health. A risk of seizures, difficulty with sleep, a loss of appetite and growth suppression are just a few of the possible side effects.

“It’s really not recommended to take medication without medical advice, period.  This is a non-negotiable issue,” he says.

Ellacott agrees that using the drug without medical supervision is risky.

“Pharmaceuticals react with everybody’s body differently,” she says. “I think it’s a dangerous road to go down if you don’t have ADD.”