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Transitioning from high school to college gives many students the independence that they’ve never had before. This can be exciting and liberating but also easily abused. The pressure of fitting in, meeting new people, participating in activities, and balancing schoolwork can lead to drug and alcohol use.
College students make up one of the largest populations of drug abusers and are at a heightened risk of addiction. The rate of substance abuse (both drugs and alcohol) among college students has risen steadily in recent years. A recent study found that 37% of college students regularly used an illegal drug or abused alcohol.
Stats on alcohol use among college students
There is a high prevalence of drinking among college students. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 54.9% of full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 drank alcohol in the past month, which is over 10% higher than non-college students of the same age. Risky behaviors associated with alcohol use can lead to adverse outcomes, including:
- Physical injury and death – 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor-vehicle crashes.
- Physical assault – 696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
- Sexual assault – 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
- Poor academic performance – Approximately 1 in 4 college students report academic consequences from drinking, including missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall.
A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that alcohol and substance abuse are closely linked with anxiety and depression. Additionally, 37% of alcohol abusers and 53% of drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness.
While substance abuse and mental health disorders are not directly caused by one another, drugs and alcohol are often used to self-medicate and ease the symptoms of undiagnosed mental health issues.
Symptoms related to mental health problems can also be worsened or trigger new symptoms with the use of drugs and alcohol. And when combined with medications like anti-anxiety pills, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers, drug and alcohol use can make symptoms more difficult to manage.
Binge drinking on college campuses
Alcohol abuse can take different forms on college campuses, such as binge drinking. Binge drinking is classified as alcohol consumption in a short period to get drunk. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found two out of every five students binge drink and that heavy drinking is most common in the first six weeks of freshman year.
Combining a new permissive environment with potential mental health, stress, or relationship issues can contribute to binge drinking and consistently drinking too much. Students who binge drink three times a week or more are six times more likely to perform poorly on tests and projects than their peers. Young people who binge drink frequently are also more likely to develop alcohol use disorder.
Unfortunately, thousands of college students are sent to the hospital each year due to alcohol overdose. When alcohol is consumed excessively, there is a high risk of alcohol poisoning or overdose. This can occur when there is too much alcohol in the bloodstream, and essential functions such as breathing, heart rate, and body temperature begin to shut down. Alcohol overdose can cause brain damage or death and is one of the main risk factors of binge drinking.
If you or someone you know struggles with binge drinking, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a behavioral health treatment services locator that you can use to find support resources. It can help you find treatment centers, treatment programs, and support groups near you.
Discover how telehealth supports students seeking help
Common drugs abused on college campuses
Adderall, Ritalin, amphetamines, and other study drugs
Ecstasy, MDMA, LSD, and other hallucinogenic drugs
College students face many pressures on campus, both socially and academically, that could lead to substance abuse. To succeed academically, some students may begin abusing prescription stimulants used to treat ADHD, such as Adderall or Ritalin, to stay up all night studying or to improve focus. Illegal drugs, prescription drugs, and marijuana also have a high rate of use among college students.
Young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are the main group that uses hallucinogens such as ecstasy and MDMA. Hallucinogens are used as a party drug during concerts, raves, and music festivals to heighten their experience. However, there are many negative side effects to taking the drug, including severe depression and developing other mental illnesses.
The prevalence of young people abusing prescription painkillers or opioids is also increasing. These are often misused as a way to alleviate pain and to get high. Addiction to painkillers can lead to trying illegal drugs like fentanyl or heroin to achieve the same feeling but can result in death.
Although it may start as innocent fun, repeated substance abuse can lead to addiction and cause harmful side effects on physical and mental health. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help for an addiction. Many resources provide support for addiction recovery and addiction treatment.
Causes of substance abuse in college students
Substance abuse is prevalent among college students and usually results in academic, physical, mental, or social problems. According to the 2019 Monitoring the Future survey, college students have the highest marijuana and illicit drug use, such as amphetamines, cocaine, hallucinogens, and MDMA.
Common causes for substance abuse among college students include:
1. Peer pressure
College is a time to try new things, meet new people, and make new memories. But, that also means there’s a higher chance of giving in to peer pressure. With the prevalence of party culture on many campuses, students are constantly surrounded by people using drugs and drinking alcohol. A student may choose to do what everyone else is doing to find a sense of belonging.
2. Social anxiety
Socializing in a new environment can be anxiety-inducing for many students, especially for introverts. Drug and alcohol use can be seen as a way to calm nerves and loosen up but can lead to substance abuse. According to research published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), individuals with anxiety are at an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder.
3. Greek life
Many college students join Greek life to meet new people and find a place where they belong. However, alcohol and drug abuse can be a significant aspect of fitting into the culture of Greek life on college campuses. A recent study found that men and women living in fraternity and sorority houses have higher binge drinking and marijuana use rates. Former Greek life members were also more likely to develop alcohol-use disorder by the age of 35.
Curiosity is a common reason why college students experiment with drugs and alcohol. With the newfound freedom that many college students experience living away from home for the first time, students are more likely to try new things. Combined with peer pressure, this can lead many students to try drugs and alcohol to see what it’s like or experience something new.
5. Academic success
With the increased pressure placed on academic performance, college can be an incredibly stressful time. There’s also the stress of making new friends and balancing an active social life. Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin are known as “study drugs” commonly used by students. Although a doctor prescribes these medications for ADHD, some students abuse them to stay up all night to study.
6. Coping with mental health issues
According to data from the Texas Medical Association, young adults with mental illness are at an increased risk of stimulants, non-prescription medication, and marijuana abuse. Mental illnesses don’t cause substance abuse, but some students use substances to cope with symptoms. These substances may help relieve symptoms in the short term but can also ultimately make symptoms worse.
If you’re struggling, seek help from a mental health professional to create a healthy mental health plan.
Signs of drug and/or alcohol abuse
The following signs may indicate drug or alcohol abuse:
Lack of interest in class and other activities
A negative change in academic performance
Withdrawing from friends or acting secretive
Unexplained changes in behavior or personality
Mood swings, depression, or irritability
If you suspect someone may be abusing drugs or alcohol, steps can be taken to provide support. SAMHSA offers resources for peers, parents, and educators to support individuals struggling with drug and alcohol abuse.
The SAMHSA National Helpline is a free and confidential 24/7/365 hotline that provides treatment referrals and information. Support groups and inpatient or outpatient programs can also aid in addiction recovery, help identify triggers, and develop treatment plans.
Healthcare resources to help students
On-campus healthcare resources can also provide care for students in need. Students can begin to develop healthy lifestyle behaviors with the support of on-campus counseling and health coaching services. Schools with 24/7 telehealth services may also have access to mental health support via virtual care. In any situation, it’s essential to know what campus resources are available to support student success and engagement.
Contact TimelyCare to discover how telehealth services can support students struggling with drug and alcohol abuse.