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'Grade-boosting' stimulant use on campus

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A recent editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal looks at the use of "grade-boosting" stimulants (such as Ritalin) by Canadian post-secondary students. According to the editorial: "Universities and colleges are ground zero for 'grade-boosting' stimulant abuse."

The thrust of the editorial's argument is that universities and colleges need to work proactively to reduce the misuse of such substances, including by educating students about "the dangers of illicit stimulant use."

The piece also notes that many such stimulants, though prescribed to treat ADHD, are in fact not effective at improving academic performance. Indeed, the editorial notes: "the vast majority of the evidence shows no cognitive improvements with the use of stimulants when compared with placebo in healthy individuals." Yet, it points out that adverse side effects include "death, life-threatening hypertension and arrhythmias, serious overdoses, dependence and depression."

I believe that such stimulant use is especially important in light of both increased tuition fees and increased levels of student debt. Over the past two decades, tuition fees in Ontario have increased by 160 per cent in real terms. Also over the past two decades, student debt levels have increased very substantially, especially in Ontario, and especially for students from lower-income households.

As the cost of post-secondary education increases for students, pressure mounts for them to undertake more paid employment (including sex work) during the academic year. This reduces the amount of time they have to study.

As students feel pressure to get good grades at school -- but have less time to study -- it should not come as a surprise that an increasing number of them would try using "grade-boosting" stimulants. And irrespective of whether the evidence shows "no cognitive improvements...when compared with placebo," we should not be surprised if they continue using them. In fact, less than a year ago, it was revealed by CBC that students in the faculty of medicine at the University of Sherbrooke "admitted to Radio-Canada they use Ritalin without a prescription to help them concentrate while studying." Paradoxically, the same CBC online article reporting on this revelation also quotes the University of Sherbrooke's dean of medicine as stating: "It's not that dangerous to take Ritalin..."

If the University of Sherbrooke's dean of medicine believes it's "not that dangerous to take Ritalin," how will university officials convince their students of its adverse side effects?

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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