Prevalence and correlates of non-medical stimulants and related drug use in a sample of South African undergraduate medical students

Mari Retief, Chris Verster


Background: The non-medical use of prescription psychostimulants or cognitive-enhancing substances among healthy college students is a growing concern. This use appears to be particularly high among medical students. To our knowledge, no literature is available on the non-medical use of stimulants among South African medical students.

Objective: To determine the prevalence and correlates of non-medical stimulant use as well as subjective opinion on peer numbers using stimulants and university attitude towards stimulant use among a sample of South African undergraduate medical students.

Methods: A descriptive observational study was conducted by means of a self-report questionnaire. Second- and fourth-year medical students (n = 252) completed the questionnaire.

Results: Of the sample, 44 (18%) reported a lifetime use of stimulants for non-medical purposes and 33 (85%) of this group reported use within the past year. A total of six (2%) students reported a diagnosis of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In the group without a diagnosis of ADHD, non-medical stimulant use was associated with the year of study (p = 0.03) and illicit substance use (p = 0.01). Most of the students in this group (31, 32%) reported using stimulants to improve concentration.

Conclusion: Non-medical use of stimulants to improve concentration and academic performance is prevalent among the South African medical students sampled in this study. Further research at other institutions and under non-medical students would be helpful to assess the scope of this phenomenon.

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Submitted: 11 March 2015
Published: 24 June 2016

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South African Journal of Psychiatry    |    ISSN: 1608-9685 (PRINT)    |    ISSN: 2078-6786 (ONLINE)