Teens resort to illegal ADHD drugs to study for exams
Some secondary school students abuse mental stimulants to prepare for exams, claiming they use them as 'last resort'
He needs a rush of energy to prepare for the upcoming mid-year examination.
With all his time spent in class, tuition and on co-curricular activities, 14-year-old Jason has little time left for his exam preparation.
So he takes out a white pill that he keeps in his wallet, crushes it with a spoon and eats the powder.
These pills contain methylphenidate, a mental stimulant meant to treat people with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), attention deficit disorder and less commonly, narcolepsy (a sleeping disorder).
But Jason does not have a prescription as he does not suffer from any of these conditions.
Instead, he claims he is taking these pills because they make it "extremely easy" to get work done.
The Secondary 3 student from a top school says: "I start to feel jittery when I take it but suddenly, I can easily set my mind on any task and get it done.
"For example, the drug makes me want to redo the same questions again and again, which is great for mathematics. I don't get distracted by the computer or TV too."
Methylphenidate has three formulations here - Ritalin, Concerta and Rubifen.
Similar attention deficit drugs such as Adderall and Vyvanse are less common here but are known to be abused by students overseas. (See report on facing page)
While methylphenidate has been reported to be used by university students here before, this is the first time secondary school students are known to be misusing them too.
The drug is classified as a controlled drug here under the Misuse of Drugs Act and can be legally obtained from a pharmacist, as long as one has a doctor's written prescription and photo identification.
This means that it is illegal for these students to buy the drug without a prescription. But they do.
Even without a prescription, it is possible to procure the drug from overseas pharmacies or from online sources.
Jason belongs to a group of three students who has been taking methylphenidate as a way to cope with their schoolwork since they found out about it from a website last year.
He says one of the members in his group buys it from an online black market known as the Silk Road, which is accessible only through the Tor network. The network is designed to keep its users anonymous, and the websites are known to be part of the "deep web", a portion of the Internet that is not indexed by standard search engines.
The Silk Road is believed to have been closed down by international drug enforcement agencies last year. Jason declines to elaborate how they managed to buy the drug from there.
Each box of 100 pills costs around $30, including shipping, he says.
He knows of a few others in his school who misuse the drug too but quickly notes that "only a very small circle of people know about it".
One tablet keeps Jason awake for up to 30 hours. And once the effects wear off, he simply goes to sleep.
"It is a temporary discomfort and it screws up my sleep cycle but it is worth it because I get more time to study."
Previously, he had tried alternatives such as caffeinated drinks, strong coffee and chicken essence but found them to be ineffective after a while.
One of his friends managed to get a pill from a relative with ADHD.
Says Jason: "He tried it and said he felt like a superhuman. Of course, we were very cautious at first, but the more we researched it (online), the more we found that its side effects are mild and not long-lasting."
Their parents do not know they are using methylphenidate as a stimulant but Jason insists that it is not wrong for them to do so.
He claims they take the pill only during exam periods and as a last resort.
"We are not dependent on it. We don't eat it for recreation."
It is not drug misuse as it is "no different from an ultra strong coffee", he argues.
Neither is it "cheating", as they have to put in the effort to remember what they studied too.
But pharmacists and addiction experts say these are common misconceptions about the drug.
Ms Irene Quay, honorary secretary of the Pharmaceutical Society of Singapore, says: "As with all drugs, they should only be used appropriately and under the supervision of a physician.
"Use by students for non-medical reasons... results in a euphoric effect and subsequent craving for repeated use, leading to addiction."
She chose therapy instead of drugs
Sufferers of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) depend on methylphenidate to live normally.
But some found themselves in the position of being drug dealers for other students.
One ADHD sufferer says she was shocked to hear her friends talk about methylphenidate abuse.
Her secondary school friends openly discuss using the drug to boost their O-level preparations.
Says Linda, 19: "There were people around me who had mentioned about wanting to buy it online, illegally."
"Students abuse the ADHD medication as it stimulates the brain to zero in on one thing. It helps (our) memory too."
She has been familiar with the "obvious" side effects of the drug since she was 12, when she was diagnosed with the condition.
"I blame their lack of awareness, since there are obvious side effects (to using methylphenidate)," she adds, citing insomnia and lethargy as some of them.
Linda chose therapy, rather than medication, as she feared these side effects.
So far, no one has asked her to share her medicine as she deliberately keeps her condition from her peers.
She does not want to reveal her full name as she fears her school will find out about her condition.
"I don't use the drug but unfortunately, there are a lot of people who have to take the medication for life," she says.
"It pains me that these boys just assume it is an easy way to remember everything."
Other cases of methylphenidate abuse
In the US, more working professionals have been found to abuse Adderall - an amphetamine-based stimulant similar to methylphenidate - which is prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reported The New York Times.
Almost one in five Ivy League college students acknowledge that they have used stimulants to perform better in school despite not being diagnosed with ADHD, reported a study that surveyed 616 students from an unidentified Ivy League college in 2012.
The findings reflect other research that suggests stimulant use is a problem on college campuses across the US, said the study's co-author, Dr Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioural pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York.
A small number of university students here reportedly mimic ADHD symptoms in order to get prescription methylphenidate pills, reported The Straits Times. Six students said the drug is favoured by those in reading-intensive university courses and jobs requiring prolonged concentration periods.
A study by The Partnership at Drugfree.org showed that 24 per cent of high school students in the US - more than five million kids - have abused methylphenidate pills or Adderall.