The first time 21-year-old student Philip took speed, he was sitting alone in his bedroom in his shared house. His five flatmates were in, but they were all desperately working through the last few assignments of the second year of their film production course. The degree – which Philip studied at The University for the Creative Arts, Farnham – had proven more difficult than he’d envisaged. It wasn’t just about making great films; there were multiple modules and deadlines to manage.
“I spent a lot of my second year partying and I’d managed to get hold of quite a lot of speed very cheaply,” he explains. “My deadline was approaching and I hadn’t done anything, and I’d heard about people using stimulants to get work done quickly before, so I thought I’d try some of my speed.”
Sure enough, Philip was laser-focused and got the assignment handed in promptly, but a not-so-friendly habit was born. A few weeks later, he used the drug again to complete another assignment. “I stayed up all night, doing another line every hour or so,” he says, “I managed to bash out the entire essay before sunrise.”
Philip is not the only student to have turned to drugs while studying. (His name, and the names of all interviewees, have been changed to protect their identities.) Most students who have felt the burning pressures of university deadlines will have pounded a few too many coffees or taken – sometimes even snorted – Pro Plus to help them out. But the increasing popularity of study drugs at British universities have taken things much further.
The term encompasses illegal drugs like cocaine and speed, as well as drugs usually prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Students are routinely using these drugs on the way into exams to help them focus, or at home while writing coursework. It’s difficult to determine exactly how many students are involved, but research from Loughborough University surveying students from 54 British universities showed that 19 percent had used substances for cognitive enhancement. That’s almost one in five people at uni.
Recent geography graduate Emma became hooked on Modafinil, a drug prescribed for narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, while studying at Royal Holloway University, London. The 21-year-old explained that the combination of assignments, deadlines and her dyslexia created an untenable situation. “The university constantly supported me for my dyslexia,” she says, “but I still struggled when I was at home on my own trying to complete essays.”
Emma was able to get hold of the drug from a fellow student. “My friend told me that it was commonly used by students in America and he could get hold of it if I wanted to try,” she says. “I was curious – it seemed like everyone was doing some sort of drug to study, so I gave it a go.”
Emma frequently used Modafinil to get through her assignments, sometimes taking it daily, and she says that many of her friends did the same. But she quickly put a stop to the habit when the side effects surfaced a few weeks later. “I was still hyper-focused but I stopped feeling creative,” she says. “Stringing an interesting sentence together felt stunted. It also became really difficult to sleep for a while.”
Among the students I interviewed, Modafinil and the ADHD medication Ritalin were the most popular cognition enhancement drugs. Ellen – a 21-year-old graduate from the University of Nottingham – started taking Ritalin after her friend bought a batch on the dark web, and continued throughout her three years at university . “It was a really common thing at my uni,” she told us. “Everyone took them, so it didn’t seem like a big deal. Taking Ritalin wasn't a life-changing experience for me, they were just an aid to get large amounts of work done in a short period.”
But while Ritalin can seem beneficial to a struggling student, the long-term ramifications of non-prescription use can be serious. After taking Ritalin for a few months, Scout – a 20-year-old Manchester art student – suffered some troubling side effects. “My friend got me Ritalin from the dark web when I had a really tough assignment and I wanted to drop out of uni, but everyone told me to just stick it out,” she says.
Scout was already doing a lot of recreational drugs, so Ritalin “didn’t seem like a huge step”. But a few months in, she started to black out, suffer from memory loss and have extreme bouts of insomnia. She explains: “I never slept on Ritalin, just eventually passed out in the early hours. And then I’d wake up to find I’d been watching all these videos on the internet and sending people messages, but I had no recollection of it.”
After a few weeks of very little sleep, her friend recommended another drug. “I started using Xanax to balance the Ritalin out and found myself yo-yo-ing between the two constantly,” she says, “I should have just dropped out.” She eventually graduated and was able to wean herself off the drugs after the pressure of assignments abated.
Dr Giuseppe Aragona, a GP and online doctor for Prescription Doctor, says Emma’s side effects are not uncommon. “Ritalin works to increase the concentration of certain brain neurotransmitters that control the likes of problem-solving and reasoning,” Aragona explains. “When these are altered without any real requirement, it may cause anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia and disruption to your sleep pattern. You can also experience dizziness and heart palpitations.”
But these aren’t the only problems Ritalin can cause. “Behavioural changes are common, particularly irritability, depression or paranoia,” says Aragona. “If Ritalin is misused in high doses long-term, it can cause serious consequences, including seizures, delusions and hallucinations. You may also feel disoriented and lose your appetite.” As for Modafinil, the effects of long-term recreational use on healthy people remains unknown, although a London South Bank University survey from 2020 concluded that “there may be the potential for dependency to develop over time”.
So far, no universities in Britain have publicly outlined a ban on cognition-enhancing drugs on their campuses, but many outline the selling of drugs as a breach of their student code of conduct, which often results in exclusion. When asked for comment, the three universities mentioned in this article all provided statements that underlined their commitment to the health, safety and wellbeing of their students, and the UCA encouraged anyone struggling to contact their specialist support team.
A University of Nottingham spokesperson added: “The use of so-called ‘study drugs’ is considered academic misconduct where stiff penalties apply under our student discipline code. The university investigates and records any drug-related incident on campus, runs regular drug education campaigns, and takes a robust approach to criminality in partnership with police.”
Scout, Ellen, and Emma all stopped taking cognition enhancers once they graduated, finding the working world much easier to navigate than the stresses of university. Ellen believes the “work hard and you can achieve your dreams spiel” prevalent at universities contributes to an intense pressure that leads to drug misuse. She says she never sought help from her university, but this was partly because the attitude on campus among students was, “If you can't deal with it, then you shouldn't be here.”
As for Philip, his adverse experiences with study drugs have been enough to put him off them for good. “Maybe if I hadn’t been buying all these drugs I might have been able to just finish the essay like a normal person,” he says, before concluding: “Nowadays I just stick to coffee.”
Anyone struggling with substance misuse or drug addiction is entitled to NHS care in the same way as anyone else who has a health problem. Check the NHS website for more information.