Pubdate: Sun, 08 Jan 2006
Source: Montreal Gazette (CN QU)
Copyright: 2006 The Gazette, a division of Southam Inc.
Author: Kristen Morency, Freelance


'It's Really Not Hard To Get Hold Of'

Abuse Rate Among Students At 5% To 10% And Is Rising, Concordia
Officials Say

When Valerie needed a boost during her final exams at Concordia
University, she didn't brew a pot of strong coffee or open a can of
the energy drink Red Bull. Instead, she popped a powerful little pill.

"It helped me focus for eight hours straight," said Valerie, who spoke
on the condition that her real name not be used.

"I didn't even notice time go by. I didn't eat, I didn't sleep, I
didn't even move. It really organized the thoughts in my head so I
could retain all of the information I was studying."

The drug the Concordia graduate relied on to get through five
mid-terms in one week is Ritalin - known in the medical world as
methylphenidate - and is commonly used to treat people with attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder. The drug, which stimulates parts of
the brain by increasing dopamine and noradrenaline activity, goes by
several aliases like R-Ball, Vitamin R, and Smarties, and is
increasingly used as a study aid among stressed out university students.

Jeffrey Levitt, Concordia's co-ordinator of clinical training and
supervision, says Ritalin is abused by about five to 10 per cent of
Concordia and McGill University students.

According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, in the past
year, 10 per cent of young people in the United States have misused
Ritalin or its sister drug, Adderall, which was recently banned in
Canada after being linked to 20 sudden deaths. A 2002 University of
Wisconsin survey revealed that one in five college students take the

Concordia's health services educator, Owen Moran, believes these
numbers are on the rise.

"There has definitely been a surge in use among students in the past
couple of years," Moran said. "This certainly wasn't a problem 10
years go." He added that Ritalin misuse has become more prevalent
because students have easy access to the drug.

"It's really not that hard to get hold of," he said. "Some doctors are
more likely to prescribe Ritalin, and people will tell their friends.
They go doctor shopping. Once they have their prescription, many
people will keep half their pills and sell the rest."

For Valerie, it was as simple as asking her best friend, who has ADHD,
for one of her pills.

But is it safe to take Ritalin without a prescription? And does the
drug - which some students crush into powder and snort in order to
increase the amphetamine-like effects - even help students to perform

According to Moran, any drug that is taken without a prescription has
the potential to do harm. "Ritalin in particular can cause heart
palpitations and keep you from sleeping," he said.

Moran also has some doubts concerning Ritalin's effectiveness as a
study aid.

"It's important to keep in mind that Ritalin, like any other
medication, doesn't necessarily work for everyone who takes it," he

And he has qualms about the use of stimulants in general.

"Seeing students coming in and asking for Ritalin prescriptions, or
even those who take caffeine pills or Red Bull, makes me wonder.

"What kind of stressors do they have to make them turn to these sorts
of stimulants?

"Obviously, it's a problem in our society. We think we have to do more
to be better, and if this pill will give us an edge, we'll take it.''

Valerie says she took Ritalin only once ("as an experiment"), but
there are students who really think they need that extra edge, and use
the stimulant regularly.

Sean Toomey, who did not want to name the Quebec university he attends
for fear of tarnishing its reputation, says that many of his peers
rely on the pill to stay focused in school.

"I've never done it personally," said Toomey, who's majoring in
business. "It goes against my drug policy. But I've noticed that it's
surprisingly common, even among people who you'd think would never
indulge in such practices."

Toomey said some students have leftover Ritalin prescriptions from
high school, which results in "a somewhat lucrative underground trade"
that peaks around mid-terms and final exams, when these students sell
pills to friends for about $ 5 each.

It's alarming that Ritalin - a drug most people probably associate
with hyperactive children at summer camp - is being illicitly used and
sold by university students, Toomey said, adding that some of his
peers swear by it.

"People say that it makes them think more rationally, and they can sit
down and study for seven or eight hours straight, which is especially
crucial for repetitive subjects, like history," he said.

Levitt says Ritalin misuse is linked to society's obsession with
band-aid solutions. "I think students are more desperate these days.
There's more competition, and kids are looking for a quick fix," he

Moran said deep breathing exercises, relaxation, and hot baths are
excellent for helping stressed-out students calm down and concentrate.
Ritalin does the exact opposite. "It puts your nerves all over the
place, and gives you no time for a breather," he said.

"It's just a shame that people aren't coping effectively," Moran said.
"Ritalin actually prevents people from coping in a healthier way."
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