The FAMHP asked more than 12,000 francophone university students about the use of stimulant drugs. 5% of them said to use stimulant medicines for non-medical use, in order to study better.
What are stimulant medicines?
Stimulant medicines containing methylphenidate, modafinil, pitolisant and atmoxetine (list of medicines that are commercialised in Belgium) are approved for the treatment of attention deficit and disorder with or without hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD) and narcolepsy. These are prescription medicines. Abuse can lead to healthproblems such as heart problems, elevated blood pressure, insomnia, depression, panic attacks and addiction.
Some students use stimulants in the hope of improving their study performance. In Flanders, regular surveys are being performed in order to investigate drug use and the use of stimulant medicines in students. For francophone universities in Belgium there were no data. Therefore, the Department of Vigilance of the FAMHP performed a survey for these students.
The survey was performed in October and November 2018 at six francophone universities in Belgium. All students 18 years or older were invited by e-mail to participate. Participation was voluntary and anonymous. In total, 12, 144 students filled in to the survey (14% response percentage). The average age of responders was 22 years and 65% of them were women. Approximately one fourth of responders were medicine or health sciences students.
1 in 20 students (5%) uses stimulant medicines for non-medical reasons.
In total, 8 % of the students admitted taking stimulant medicines at some time, whether or not as part of a medical treatment. 6% said that they took these medicines in the past year. Methylphenidate was the most commonly used substance. Twice as many men (10%) as women (5%) admitted using stimulant medicines.
Two in three users of stimulant medicines do so without any medical treatment. Of these non-medical users, 82% started taking it after the age of 18.
Stimulant medicines without medical prescription are used to improve study performance.
Better concentration while studying, being able to study longer and improving study performance were by far the most significant reasons why these medicines are used. Using them as a party drug or for weight loss, however, is rather rare.
The use of stimulant medicines is more frequent during the revision and exam period. While most medical users take these medicines at least on a weekly basis, non-medical users take them more sporadically.
Users notice side effects.
In both medical and non-medical users of stimulant drugs, the most frequently reported negative effects were sleep disorders, heart palpitations and emotional instability. In general, stimulant medicines are commonly associated with headache, nervousness, agitation, decrease in appetite, nausea and stomach ache. Generally speaking, the intensity of these side effects rises as used doses increase.
Stimulant medicines for non-medical use are mostly acquired via friends and acquaintances.
Friends or acquaintances within and outside of the student community are the most significant source of stimulant medicines for non-medical use. This suggests some patients in medical treatment are sharing their medicines with their friends. 8% of non-medical users acquired these medicines via illegal online channels.
Numbers are in line with those of other studies.
A European overview study from 2015 shows 1% to 16% of students taking stimulant medicines for non-medical use. Flemish university and college students report a non-medical use of 9% in 2017. The design and execution of these studies, however, were different. Therefore, results of the new survey cannot be directly compared to those of these previous studies. From research by the socialist mutualities in 2018 it appeared that Flemish youngsters use more stimulant medicines than their counterparts in Wallonia or Brussels.
This study confirms that a small minority of students abuse stimulant medicines to improve their study performance. Students must be aware that no drug is safe and effective for better intellectual performance. There are many risks associated with abusing these drugs. Abuse can lead to health problems such as heart problems, elevated blood pressure, insomnia, depression, panic attacks and addiction. Drugs acquired outside of the legal circuit, for example on an illegal website, may not always contain the correct active ingredient, the right dosage or the correct excipients and could be harmful.
Because stimulant medicines were initially intended for treating ADHD in children and adolescents, long-term information on use in adults is scarce. Moreover, even within this therapeutic framework physicians need to evaluate the need of continuing treatment using stimulant medicines on a regular basis. Therefore, an annual suspension of the medication is advised, so physicians can evaluate symptoms and function of their patients. Under no circumastances stimulant medicines are to be used without medical supervicion.
The FAMHP thanks all students who filled in the survey as well as the universities and various partners who contributed to the implementation of this survey.
Reporting abuse or misuse of medicines (Dutch or French only)
Educational material on methylphenidate (Dutch only)
Studies and medication in Flanders campaign (Dutch only)
ADHD Health Care Path (Dutch or French only)
Commercialised stimulant medicines in Belgium
Concerta®, Equasym®, Medikinet®, Methylfenidaat Sandoz®, Methylphenidate Mylan®, Rilatine®, Provigil®, Xyrem® en Wakix®