The Rita Effect

Focus Drugs: The Easy Way Out

Editor’s Note: This article was originally written in September of 2018

A gentle May breeze trickles into the cracked open door, brushing up a boy’s chestnut locks.“Can I shut the door?” he asks. All 38 eyes stare, silently scolding the loud disrupter.As the door gently closes, the proctor barks: “Keep your paper to yourself!”Eyes draw back to each individual calculus packet, nervously scrutinizing the jumble of numbers, letters and signs mingled on the pale orange sheets.The tense classroom is filled with an array of students. There are the clever ones, those who scoffed at the first free-response problem, rolling their eyes in ridicule at the apparent joke that is finding the second derivative of a transformed exponential function. On the opposite side of the spectrum, a tearful band of pupils struggle through their paper. One after the other, as each second on the clock ticks by, it seems as though the glimpse of confidence they had entering the room two hours prior has permanently drained away. Finally, a couple of students are oddly calm. This group are those who slipped to the restroom before the 8am start. Prior to enduring the three and a half hours of exhausting mathematical reasoning, they put their worries behind them in the simplest of ways: they took a pill.

From Adderall to Ritalin or Concerta, these “focus drugs” prescribed to people affected by ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), allow its consumers to have sped-up brain activity by increasing the availability of neurotransmitters in the central nervous system’s connections. However, they come with many warnings of side effects including glaucoma, muscles tics, and anxiety often ignored by casual high school users.

“At least 50% of our grade popped Rita for their AP exams” one 2018 graduate stated, referring to Ritalin as “Rita”, a common nickname for the stimulant.  

The danger for these students is that they often obtain it from their peers affected by ADHD that need it for learning, meaning they are at risk by consuming a drug that is not prescribed to them and their medical particularities.

The abuse of ‘study drugs’ continues to increase.

“Ritalin is way too over-prescribed because there’s no stigma against it anymore,” adds another unnamed ZIS user.

“Kids who don’t need it are more likely to abuse it if they can easily get it from a friend with a prescription, and then suffer from side effects they didn’t know about.”

These side effects include feelings of paranoia and delusion, lack of appetite, disturbed sleeping patterns, raised body temperature, increased blood pressure and heart rate, as well as headaches or migraines the following day.

Adderall is just one of many study drugs commonly abused in the US. Most study drugs fall into the stimulant drug class — drugs that stimulate the central nervous system to increase alertness, energy, and attention. (addictions.com)

Feelings of such intense discomfort following the consumption of stimulants like Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta could be one of the reasons why exam scores were lacking. The immediate side effects experienced the next day could make writing an IB paper two or another AP exam painful, and have a significant effect on the student’s performance.

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2017 versus 2018 ZIS IB stats displayed, showing a decrease (zis.com)

Zurich International School released its yearly statistics for its graduating class, and the IB and AP report slight, but important decreases in the 2018 exam scores.

These drops, specifically a 2 point decrease (out of 45) in the IB, could be attributed to the negative long-term effects of these focus drugs.

This phenomenon raises concern from the ZIS administration as they strive to keep a healthy student body ready to tackle standardized examinations like the IB and AP, without the necessity of study pills.

“I think it’s fair to say that one of the challenges is always going to be to what extent students are open and honest about their experience with stuff like this,” says ZIS Upper School Principal John Switzer.

“This is why we did the ‘Freedom from Chemical Dependency survey’, which we’ve done three times now,” Switzer adds, alluding to the initiatives taken by ZIS to investigate and educate their students about substance abuse.

Given the difficulty and cost of testing for these drugs, there seems to be no immediate solution for identifying students who are abusing these drugs. Moving forward, institutions like ZIS can only hope that the trend dissipates before any permanent harm is made to students and their exam scores.

– Olivia Ravery ’19

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