Writing with Ritalin: medicine or a cheat?

Ritalin (Methylphenidate) is a stimulant drug prescribed to sufferers of ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit/Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder). But it has also become the Red Bull of St Andrews students, with […]


Ritalin (Methylphenidate) is a stimulant drug prescribed to sufferers of ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit/Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder). But it has also become the Red Bull of St Andrews students, with its use most noticeable among students from the U.S.

Why the fuss? Because it increases concentration and therefore is reported to enhance study performance. Its side effects include a reduced appetite. In addition, it has crazy effects as a party drug when taken with a glass of alcohol. It is the “wonder pill”. Work like an Olympian, party like an animal and lose loads of weight. “Whatever you can’t do, Ritalin can!” said a friend as he was starting his IR essay five hours before the deadline.

Those that do not have the golden ticket prescription to Ritalin fight through perpetual procrastination, incessant daydreaming and fidgeting. A precious moment of actual concentration is then promptly interrupted by the red flash of a bbm. Studying is like a sport. It takes determination, perseverance and willpower. Therefore, I ask the question, where do the ethical boundaries of Ritalin lie? Like with any performance-enhancing drug, is it fair?

Although St Andrews is a multi-national microcosm, it is noticeably my American friends who are prescribed cognitive enhancing drugs for ADD/ADHD that use it most. According to the UN, Americans use 90% of the world’s Ritalin supply. Does this mean to say that there’s an epidemic of ADD/ADHD in the States? In the New York Times Dr. Alan Zametkin, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health said the field of adult attention deficit disorder “is just chaos…There has become a cottage industry of adult A.D.D.” He said that even procrastination is now said to be a sign of attention deficit disorder.

But where is medicine going? Is medicine no longer a cure for illness, but used for the pursuit of happiness? Viagra at bedtime, Ritalin before an essay deadline and some liposuction when we’re feeling a bit chubby. The noticeable shift towards a market-based health care system in the U.S. lends itself to medical consumerism. Here the pharmaceutical industry has thrived and gained power. As multimillion dollar businesses, they can subtly influence thinking through marketing and promotional pitches. The same advertising agency that designs ads for McDonalds designed the ad campaign for Ritalin.

While nearly four million Americans are prescribed amphetamine-like stimulants (and up to a million more may be taking them illegally), we can be quite sure that an epidemic of ADD/ADHD has not suddenly broken out in North America. Instead, it is a fashion that reflects the values of today. You may say that making people smarter is good for the world. But the fact that very smart people generating complicated models to distribute financial risk contributed to the current global economic crisis should at least make you think. Being smarter does not mean being wiser.

The “wonder pill” is too good to be true. It is a drug that can become as addictive as cocaine, as personality-numbing as doing a one million piece jigsaw puzzle, and as creativity-killing as inputting data into an excel spreadsheet. Furthermore, illicit, flippant use of it diminishes respect for those who have deservedly achieved without doping. Not to mention the risks of sudden death and serious heart problems that often get overlooked. Any Ritalin user who does not officially, genuinely suffer from ADD/ADHD should reconsider their attitudes towards cheating before taking another tablet:  are you one of the 90%?

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