Following students on study drugs
An increasing number of healthy students dope themselves with ADHD drugs. What happens when ‘study drugs’ become normal? A new study sets out to find the answer.
For some students, the pressure to get good grades is so strong that they take prescription drugs in an effort to improve their performance.
In the vast vacuum of qualitative studies in this field, Danish anthropologist Margit Anne Petersen’s PhD project aims to take a closer look at this phenomenon known as smart drugs, intelligence enhancers, neuro enhancers, nootropics, or simply ‘study drugs’.
These are all terms used to describe prescription drugs that purportedly improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention and concentration.
For US students in particular, the use study drugs is on the increase, and this has prompted a heated debate about the ethical, social and health-related consequences of using these kinds of drug.
I want to study what role the medication plays in their academic and personal lives, I hope the project can contribute new understanding of how young people deal with challenges in their lives, while also providing insight into the gradually changing boundaries of what is considered normal and abnormal,
Margit Anne Petersen
This debate has also reached the Nordic countries, and Petersen’s study aims to contribute to the debate by taking an in-depth look at the use of ADHD drugs among healthy students in New York and Copenhagen:
“I want to study what role the medication plays in their academic and personal lives,” she says.
”I hope the project can contribute new understanding of how young people deal with challenges in their lives, while also providing insight into the gradually changing boundaries of what is considered normal and abnormal,” says Petersen, who in her fieldwork has been observing young students going about their lives in a variety of everyday situations.
The new normal in New York
Petersen has just completed her fieldwork. Most of her data is collected in New York, while a smaller study was carried out in Copenhagen.
In New York, ADHD drugs like Dexedrine and Adderall are the most widely used form of study drugs used by students.
There are serious and less serious side effects associated with these drugs, as they affect the dopamine system in the brain. This is a central system, which plugs into a wide variety of functions.
In her fieldwork, Petersen observed very little unease among the New York students when it came to the side effects.
“They appeared to think that if the doctor said that it’s okay for ADHD patients to take them on a daily basis, then it’s also okay if I take them once in a while.”
Context and campus parties
In New York, the researcher tried to obeserve her informants in as many different situations as possible, often for days on end – in large lecture halls, in libraries and even when students sat along at night reading.
”It is important to meet people in as many different situations as possible, because there will always be a difference in how they talk about their lives and how they actually live it,” says Petersen, who also mentions mutual trust as a necessary condition for a successful study:
”They told me very little about any unpleasant or directly negative aspects of taking study drugs. When I observed them over extended periods with different people, a fuller picture started to emerge, because people behave differently in different contexts. Soon I started seeing aspects that would not have emerged by simply interviewing the students.
“By going to parties, for instance, I noticed that some of the students took these drugs in order to be able to drink more beer and stay awake at night.”
Petersen does not know of any other research projects in this field that have followed students in their everyday lives.
- "Non-medical use of prescription stimulants among US college students: prevalence and correlates from a national survey", Addiction. University of Michigan, DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2004.00944.x
- "Nonmedical Use of Prescription Stimulants among College Students: Associations with ADHD and Polydrug Use", Pharmacotherapy. DOI: 10.1592/phco.28.2.156