Your time in college is some of the best years of your life, full of personal growth and positive interactions. Unfortunately, the pressure to do well academically, adjust to a new environment, and make friends also can be overwhelming. College comes with a unique set of responsibilities and stressors. That stress, coupled with the rest of the college lifestyle, leaves some students prone to developing addictions.
Substance abuse in college students is a problem, with binge drinking and drug use common in this population.
What is Substance Use?
Substance use is using alcohol, illegal drugs, or misusing prescription or over-the-counter drugs. It can lead to academic, legal, financial, social, and mental and physical health problems, including developing an addiction.
An addiction, or substance use disorder, is when a person uses substances despite negative consequences because they can’t stop, even when they try.
Once a person has an addiction, they’re likely to require professional treatment to determine the root cause and stop the behavior. Then, they’ll be in recovery for the rest of their life.
“What people don’t recognize about addiction is that no one sets out to become an addict,” said Christi Cessna, MS, President of Integrative Life Center. “It’s not something people want to happen to them or try to make occur. What starts as a party lifestyle or something you do to relax when you’re hanging out with friends can become a habit without you even realizing it.”
Substance Abuse in College Students Statistics
The statistics on substance use in college students are concerning, especially since student populations likely don’t consider their actions or behaviors problematic. Understanding substance use on college campuses is important for parents, students, and college officials. Knowing the statistics helps make you more aware of the issue and work toward helping those in need.
Statistics on substance use in college students include:
- 66% report drinking alcohol in the past month.
- 29% report using marijuana in the past month, with 11% using it every day. This is the highest reported usage since the study began in 1988.
- 8% report using drugs other than marijuana in the past month.
- 32% reported binge drinking in the past two weeks, which was the highest percentage reported since 2005.
- 6% reported using hallucinogens in the past month, which was the highest percentage since 1988.
- 4% of reported misusing prescription medications.
- More than 20% of students were exposed to cocaine in college.
- Annual use of Adderall is almost 10% higher in college students than in their non-college peers.
- 2% reported they were in recovery for alcohol or drug use.
Root Causes of Substance Abuse in College Students
People use substances for many reasons, but six factors are especially worth considering when it comes to drug use among college students.
Students report that stress is one of the main reasons for using substances while in college. The pressure to do well on exams leads some students to misuse ADHD medications. These are also known as “study drugs,” and 79% of college students report using them. One in six college students says they use ADHD medications without a prescription. Misusing ADHD prescriptions helps students pull all-night study sessions before a test.
2. Pressure from Peers
First-year students are especially vulnerable to peer pressure from other students. They may feel anxiety about fitting in or be curious about experimenting with drugs and alcohol now that they are out of their parents’ homes and living more independently.
3. Social Acceptance of Substance Use
Some consider drinking, using cannabis, and partying with other substances normal parts of campus life. In fact, some students even consider a college’s party culture when deciding which school to attend.
Being able to consume large doses of substances or “powering through” class the next day while still under the influence may even be a badge of honor among college crowds.
4. Ease of Accessibility
College parties often involve substance use. Getting drunk or high is at the center of many social gatherings. Some students may see substances they’ve never used before and consider trying them simply because they are there and everyone else seems to be doing it. Access is seemingly everywhere, which may be new for many students.
5. Underlying Mental Health Disorders
Mental illness is another reason for increased substance use among college students. About 60% of college students meet the criteria for at least one mental health disorder. The rate is higher than that in the general population in people’s lifetimes.
“College is a stressful time. Many students arrive at college with mental health issues that become exacerbated because of all the changes in their lives,” Cessna said. “Other students develop mental health issues while at college for a myriad of reasons.”
Signs of Substance Abuse Among College Students
If you’re a college student who uses substances or if you’re concerned about the substance use of a college student in your life, watch for the following warning signs:
- Declining interest in school or activities once enjoyed
- Unexplained mood swings and irritability
- Poor or worsening academic performance
- Isolating from friends and family members
- Engaging in risky behaviors like driving while intoxicated
- Declining interest in school or activities
- Ongoing depression and sadness
“If a student isn’t acting the way that is typical of them, it’s a good idea to inquire about their well-being,” Cessna said. “If you’re making decisions that cause you distress, it’s never too soon to reach out for help.”
The Impact of Substance Abuse on College Students
Substance abuse in college students is more than a fad. It can seriously impact their lives, now and in the future.
“Young people tend to think that nothing bad will happen to them. It’s simply not true,” Cessna said. “Decisions that people make in their teens and 20s can have consequences that last a lifetime.”
Substance use can result in:
- Physical health and safety risks
- Mental health issues
- Lower academic performance
- Risk of self-harm or suicide
- Memory loss and other cognitive health problems
College students should also consider the legal consequences of substance use. A DUI or an arrest for possessing an illegal substance could result in expulsion from school. Students can miss out on internship and career opportunities and possibly risk incarceration.
Prevention and Intervention Strategies
Students, parents, and campus officials can take steps to reduce substance use and keep students safe.
Strategies you can implement include:
- Education on the negative effects of substance use
- Fair and equal rule enforcement from the campus
- Alcohol- and drug-free campus policies
- Free and available treatment for mental health concerns
- Peer and family support
- Teaching students how to set boundaries
- Helping students put academics and their health first
“Let the people in your life know that you’re available to talk and will do your best to create a safe space for them,” Cessna said. “Be prepared to lead students who come to you to the mental health resources they need.”
Treatment for Substance Use Disorder is Available
Substance abuse in college students is a serious problem. If you see the warning signs of substance use, Integrative Life Center can help. Contact us to learn more about our substance use treatment and other mental health treatment programs.
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