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Performance-enhancing drugs: A worrying trend we need to talk about

Whether as memory boosters or to impress peers, cognitive doping is rising among students and in the workplace. It is risky, medics say, and the true extent of use remains unknown, as people taking psychostimulants do not tend to talk about it.

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When stress levels are rising and exams drawing near, school and university students are more likely to use performance-boosting drugs, doctors say.

Both prescription drugs, like Ritalin or illegal substances are increasingly used to prepare for exams, says Andreas G. Franke, a doctor and sociologist, adding that taboos mean no exact figures are available.

Franke has been researching the subject for years. According to studies conducted among students, surgeons and managers, 20 per cent have used an illegal or prescription drug at least once in order to perform better.

Franke has polled thousands of pupils, students and employees throughout Germany, along with people at training institutes throughout the south-western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Regardless of profession, one tendency is constant, he says. “Nobody talks openly about it.” People who use pills don’t tell their fellow students or colleagues, and discuss it in smaller circles, if at all.

Ritalin, used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is a popular choice. In Germany, it is illegal to take without a prescription but relatively easy to obtain, says a university student from Trier.

Someone had approached him ahead of the semester and offered him Ritalin for the exam period, procured either from someone with a prescription or online, the student explains.

Another high school student says he knew exactly how he could get hold of Ritalin. “Lots of people take it at school.”

A social worker at another school in Trier says she hasn’t seen pupils taking performance-enhancing drugs. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening,” she adds. “There’s a lot of shame around it.”

Besides drugs, students also use caffeine tablets or energy drinks to boost performance, says Franke.

However, German health insurer DAK warns against the side effects of cognitive dooping, including personality changes, dependency or deterioration of performance.

In the workplace, too, tens of thousands of people in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate alone use drugs like beta blockers, antidepressants, stimulants or ADHD pills to improve their performance or handle stress, a trend evident since 2008, says a DAK spokesperson.

Ritalin is not seen as an issue at Die Tuer, a drug-counselling centre in Trier, but amphetamine use is. People take pills or speed – “highly addictive” drugs – to perform better, says director Andreas Stamm.

One sign of addiction is when people find themselves having to use something later in the evening to calm down, such as cannabis. “They take uppers in the morning and a downer in the evening,” he says.

The tendency is reaching “worrying levels,” says Franke. “Our society is oriented towards performance; people face so much pressure to deliver more and to constantly improve.”

He says another problem is that people feel the need to perform outside work, too, with family and friends – and even on holiday. “If you’re a real man, you have to have run a marathon. You need to post things while on holiday, from exotic locations,” he lists some of the pressures people face.

At some point, people are pushed too far, Franke says.

Young people face similar issues, according to the expert. Alongside school and university, they feel they have to be present on all the social media channels and be at their best at all times. “The pressure is enormous.”

There are alternatives to drugs but “they don’t work as fast,” Franke says. Ahead of exams, his advice is to take plenty of time to prepare and be calm.

That means students will have to learn to close their doors and turn off their smartphones.

He suggests relaxation methods such as yoga and taking breaks that really are breaks, without meeting people, or going jogging.

Despite all the pressure to do better, he says, people should just let themselves be.

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