Study drugs can kill, warn Oxford University medical professionals

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Oxford students were given a serious warning this week against using ‘study drugs’, with medical professionals claiming that such drugs can cause heart attacks and even death if taken without a doctor’s prescription.

‘Study drugs’, including modafinil, ritalin, and adderrall, have become increasingly popular among British students in recent years. It is expected that a significant number of Oxford finalist students are currently taking the drugs, which have the effect of boosting concentration for a long period of time, to prepare for their Trinity term exams.

The drugs are illegal to purchase or consume without prescription, with most students ordering the ‘smart’ drugs illegally online.

Phil Cowen, a Professor of Psychopharmacology at Oxford University’s Medical Sciences Division, told The Oxford Student that the increasingly popular study drugs are “not quite as safe as people may think”.

Modafinil, Cowen warned, can be very dangerous for those with underlying heart conditions, and can prompt heart problems and even death, though such instances are very rare. The drug may also have the effect of reducing creativity.

“With every drug,” Cowen commented, “there’s a risk-benefit trade off. No drug is trouble free.”

Ritalin, another popular ‘smart’ drug, can have side effects of agitation, panic, paranoia and anxiety.

Cowen said he would not recommend study drugs to students for health reasons, though he noted that young, generally healthy undergraduates are not in a high-risk group.

A spokesperson for Oxfordshire DAAT, a local drug and alcohol support service, voiced similar concern, telling The Oxford Student that “taking any medications not directly prescribed for you will always carry a risk and modafinil is no different. It is a drug which affects your sleep pattern over several days or weeks meaning there will be consequences in the long term.”

Many Oxford students are unaware of the potential health risks associated with study drugs.

One third-year student who has taken modafinil a “handful of times” and did not wish to be named, commented: “I heard it was used to treat people with attention deficit disorder, and so assumed it was completely safe. If I’d known that taking it without a prescription or cardiogram test was dangerous I would have been a lot more wary.”

Another student defended the use of study drugs, describing ritalin in particular as a “miracle” for when she “needs to get an essay done”.

“It just keeps you completely focused,” she continued, “I normally waste so much time on Facebook and Buzzfeed when I’m trying to work, but ritalin just helps me get on with it and get work done. It’s great, and I don’t see why it’s illegal to buy over the counter.”

Asked about possible health risks, she commented: “Well I suppose every drug has some kind of risks, but I’ve never heard of anyone dying from them, so it seems fine.”

A 2014 Tab survey of 2,000 UK students found that around 1 in 5 had taken the drug modafinil, usually prescribed to treat narcolepsy.

Another Oxford undergraduate who has illegally taken study drugs a number of times, and also did not wish to be named, described the increasing popularity of modafinil, ritalin, and adderrall as a “sad reflection on Oxford”.

She commented: “We should not be forced to take illegal and potentially dangerous concentration drugs just to get by at University. There’s this idea that we take study drugs because we’re so busy getting drunk and sleeping we don’t leave enough time to work. This isn’t true. I know for me at least, Oxford can be very difficult and the growing popularity of these ‘smart’ drugs is a really sad reflection on Oxford, and on the increasing value that our society in general is placing on ‘hard work’ over making friendships ships and having fun.

“Maybe if the University gave us a reading week in 5th week, as the student union is asking, we wouldn’t be forced to resort to body-altering drugs just to get by our weekly essay.”

“If study drugs are harming student health,” she continued, “it is the University, not the students, who are to blame.”

A first-year History student who wished to remain anonymous said: “I’ve taken Modafinil in the past – I sell it to my mates in college. It really isn’t that much of a big deal, it’s just like a strong version of caffeine. Once I bashed out a 2,500 word essay in under two hours. It was pretty cool. The idea that Modafinil use is indicative of some wider social problem is rubbish.”

He continued: “If taken at the wrong time it can keep you up all night, and seriously disrupt your sleeping pattern. So I wouldn’t recommend taking it on a casual basis, but there’s nothing wrong with doing it occasionally.”

A University spokesperson said: “If cognitive enhancement drugs are a particular problem at Oxford we have yet to see any substantive evidence for it. We would strongly advise students against taking any drugs that have not been prescribed to them as this could involve putting their health at risk.”

The University went on to urge struggling students to seek help from college welfare officers or the University Counselling Service.

A Universities UK spokesperson commented: “UK universities take the issue of drug abuse very seriously and would have grave concerns about students taking drugs not prescribed to them by a doctor. Not only is this illegal but it also poses health risks.”

The University group did note, however, that it was “not aware of any new research or data to suggest that such drugs are widely used and available among the UK’s higher education student population.”

PHOTO: Jason Tester Guerilla Futures