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Study drugs: a symptom of a toxic culture?

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This exam season, just as every other, has been rife with procrastinating students becoming frustrated at their own inability to work. As a result, more and more of us are turning to ‘smart drugs’ like Modafinil and Ritalin to help us study more efficiently.

The pills are easily attainable, relatively cheap, and have a powerful effect – essentially focusing your cognitive function and helping memory retention, giving you a kind of tunnel vision which allows you to concentrate for hours on your revision.  It rewires your brain’s mental reward system, which means that you actually enjoy the process of revising.

Yet people seem unaware of the more problematic side to taking these pills, the side not advertised on their packaging. The drug can severely narrow your attention. For example, The Guardian interviewed a student whom noted that her work, after taking the drug, was “shallow”. She said it made her focus very narrowly on something that was actually quite minor.

Taking a mind-altering drug forces your body to work harder and stay awake too long

Moreover, it’s socially counter-productive. Many case studies show that it can seriously affect your behaviour, making users reclusive and even aggressive. On top of all that, it’s mentally unsustainable. Taking a mind-altering drug forces your body to work harder and stay awake too long, severely interrupting your sleeping pattern, leading to to severe unrest and anxiety upon withdrawal.

However, more important than listing these side effects, a more pressing question is whether taking these drugs is a form of cheating. Users argue that it’s not. They claim that it is not any different from taking super-caffeinated coffee, or changing your diet to help revision.

But this is a deeply destructive stance to take. It coerces others to take these pills simply to receive the same competitive edge as those who do – causing more students to suffer the mental and physical side effects.

Drugs are a product of the culture within which they are used

For this reason, I agree that we need to tackle the issue, but such a feat seems impossible. Drugs are a product of the culture within which they are used. ‘Smart drugs’ are a sad reflection of the brutally meritocratic and uber-competitive system. They are a damning indictment of the all-consuming drive for success that permeates university life. It is no wonder that top-ranking institutions have the highest rate of usage.

There is very little we can actually do to combat these ‘smart drugs’. Drugs such as these are ingrained within our cultural framework. It’s a part of student life. Therefore, I believe the issue we should be tackling is not the drugs but the toxic culture that renders them necessary. These pills are medication for the stresses of student life framed within our current competitive mindset. So long as this mentality and pressure persist, so will the drugs.

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