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Some young people take drugs to meet demands for success

Some students feel it is so difficult to live up to society’s demands for success that they use prescription drugs to optimise their study performance.

2017.09.07 | Tine Bagger Christiansen

New study shows, that some young people take drugs to meet demands for success. Photo:

A new study shows that young people use drugs to cope during their studies. Photo: Colourbox

“You either succeed, or you’re nothing,” says one female journalism student. She is one of 60 young people aged 18 to 25 doing a post-secondary degree who have been interviewed by Anthropologist Jeanett Bjønness and her colleagues at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research. All of the young people in the qualitative study were selected because they use prescription drugs to improve either their well-being or their study performance.  A little over half of the interviewed students use the drugs for the latter - optimising their study performance. This is the first study to systematically interview Danish students about their use of prescription drugs to improve their well-being or study performance.

Ritalin and beta blockers
The interviewed students primarily use ADHD drugs such as Ritalin and the narcolepsy drug Modafinil to be able to stay awake and concentrate for longer periods of time. A number of the interviewed women also use beta blockers to suppress anxiety during exams. The young people feel that they must tick a wide range of boxes to be happy with themselves: An academic education with top marks, a meaningful student job, regular exercise, an active social life and preferably a long trip abroad.

“The young people who we’ve interviewed feel they have to be active, discerning and entrepreneurial. If they’re not, it’s problematic, and they feel inadequate,” says Anthropologist Jeanett Bjønness, who is heading the study. This feeling is underlined by 23-year-old study participant Hanna:

“If you get a four in Chemistry, you’ll be living in a cardboard box in a moment,” she said in the interview.

“Drugs are a crutch you should be able to live without.”
Hanna uses beta blockers to get through exams. Although she actually believes that she should be able to do without, she still takes the drug every time “just in case.”

In fact, a lot of the young people who participated in the study feel ambivalent about their use of drugs. They feel they should be able to cope without them, but that they would not be able to live up to the demands for success on all fronts. A 24-year-old male university student who uses Ritalin to be able to work for more hours every day has this to say:

“Drugs are a crutch you should be able to live without.”

A moving goalpost
The students who participated in the study are not able to name who or what it is that demands so much of them.

“The young people say that the requirement for success is something intangible which is ‘just there all the time,’” explains Jeanett Bjønness and adds:

“This turns the demand for success into a moving goalpost, constantly shifting and impossible to live up to. They never quite reach it. Drugs are a means to perform slightly better than they could otherwise.”


  • The study ”Medikaliseret ungdomsliv? - Et kvalitativt studie af unges ikke-medicinske brug af receptpligtig medicin set i forhold til deres sundhed, trivsel og risikoadfærd” is conducted by the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research and headed by Anthropologist Jeanett Bjønness.
  • 60 students aged 18 to 25 from various educational institutions have been interviewed. All of the interviewees use prescription drugs to improve either their well-being (e.g. sleep better) or their study performance.
  • Half of the interviewees, and mostly men, use drugs to improve their study performance. 
  • The ADHD drug Ritalin is the most popular drug for improving performance. 
  •  In the study, only women use beta blockers to suppress exam-related anxiety.




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