10 Feb

Fierce, often unhealthy, competition has caused sports fields to be anything but equal … and now doping is insidiously creeping into the academic world, writes Debbie Reynolds

Alarm bells went off for matric student Rowan Mockler when he became aware of how many of his peers were taking concentration-enhancing prescription drugs.

“I noticed how their marks suddenly increased, not because their natural intelligence had suddenly grown, but because the drugs were helping them to increase focus, memory retention and problem-solving abilities,” said Rowan.

His argument, which won him the 2016 World Champion Persuasive Speaker award, is that medicating to improve academic performance is like athletes taking steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs.

He is not talking about children who have a genuine ADD or ADHD diagnosis, but rather those who use drugs only during exam time to enhance their brain functioning.

“This is clearly an unfair advantage,” says Rowan. “Why is it that the sports fields are monitored, but the academic world, which is actually a lot more competitive, is not?”

As part of Rowan’s responsibilities as head of his house at Michaelhouse, the Midland’s boarding school, he spent time in the housemaster’s room. “The housemaster dispenses medication and I noticed how many of the 75 boys in the house were taking medication like Ritalin and Concerta. It was a lot more prevalent than I thought, and when I began researching the topic of academic doping I learnt how rife it actually was.”

His findings were verified by all the students I spoke to about the subject; students who were aware that drugs like Ritalin and Concerta were easily available and used extensively over exam time.

Michaelhouse Rector Greg Theron says while he is aware of students without ADHD taking drugs such as Ritalin, he did not see it as a long-term advantage.

“Perhaps it works for a short period of time when they have run out of time for preparation, but this is often followed by exhaustion as a result of over work, so in an exam period the cumulative effect is negative,” he said.

“I remember as a student listening to a talk by the school counsellor who cautioned against the overuse of caffeine, which had a similar effect. In short, using a drug like Ritalin with a ‘normal’ pre-frontal cortex simply stimulates the brain. Whether it helps work is moot.”

He said it was concerning that students were exposed to movies and media around the “academic doping” narrative, but has no doubt this discussion will continue into the future as we constantly try to find ways of improving performance.

However, he said that at Michaelhouse they constantly strive to steer students to a more balanced approach. “Proper preparation, sleep, exercise and nutrition, in our opinion, is far more effective and sustainable in the long-term.”

Dr Das Pillay, a Durban paediatrician specialising in ADD and ADHD, said he was extremely concerned by the abuse of drugs such as Ritalin and Concerta.

“During exam time, I am inundated with calls from parents and students wanting me to prescribe these drugs,” he said. “I never have and I never will. Ritalin and Concerta are purely for children who have diagnosed ADHD and are not supposed to be used in normal, healthy children.

“If used incorrectly, these drugs can cause mood swings, depression, headaches, abdominal pain and weight loss. In males, especially, they can also cause aggressive behaviour.” He said most health professionals were adamant that using these drugs to enhance performance was not recommended and not safe.

“As a paediatrician with a special interest in maximising children’s potential, I recommend a holistic approach. Lifestyle management – diet, exercise, and healthy relationships between parents and children – is very important in assisting academic performance.”

He said problems related to academic performance could be caused by anxiety, depression and relationship issues with peers and family. “In today’s pressurised society, parents and children should be as concerned with EQ (emotional intelligence) as they are with IQ. If children are emotionally happy and feel good about themselves, they will want to be the best they can be – without having to turn to medication.”

Academic Doping: Signs And Side Effects

Bearing in mind that Ritalin and Concerta (methylphenidate hydrochloride) are amphetamine-like prescription stimulants, abuse of these drugs can have serious repercussions.

Most literature lists the following as possible long-term side effects: Addiction •Weight loss and malnutrition •Depression and psychosis •High blood pressure leading to strokes and heart attacks •Liver, kidney and lung damage •Disorientation, apathy, confused exhaustion.

The signs to look out for include: Reduced appetite •Irritability, agitation, hostility •Stomach pains •Insomnia •Dilated pupils •Zombie-like behaviour, reduced alertness •Headaches •Mania, psychosis and hallucinations •Excessive sweating, raised body temperature.


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