With its mix of academic stress, social norms, and newfound autonomy, the collegiate environment can influence substance use behaviors. However, substance use among college students is associated with a variety of poor health and academic outcomes.
Substance use among college and university students
According to the Centers for Disease Control, substance use is defined as the use of “alcohol, tobacco products, drugs, inhalants, and other substances that can be consumed, inhaled, injected, or otherwise absorbed into the body with possible dependence and other detrimental effects.”
Despite the normalization of substance use as part of college life, the Sober Curious movement and Dry January have students thinking critically about the benefits of abstinence, including a decreased risk for depression.
- 12 million young adults aged 18 to 22 drank alcohol (54.8%)
- 7.8 million engaged in binge drinking (35.3%)
- Nearly 6 million smoked cigarettes (26.7%)
- More than 4.5 million used cannabis (20.7%)
- 299,000 used cocaine (1.4%)
A Psychiatric Times special report on substance misuse in college students also shows substance use trends for alcohol use, binge drinking, and cocaine use were higher in full-time college students aged 18 to 22 years compared with their counterparts who were not enrolled in college.
Help students thrive with access to support resources
Substance use disorder and addiction
Alcohol and drug use among college students may start as experimentation but evolve into addiction, impacting physical and mental health.
Substance use disorder is a mental health disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior, taking away their ability to control their use of alcohol, medications, and illegal drugs. According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), “substance use disorder occurs when the recurrent use of alcohol and/or drugs causes clinically and functionally significant impairment, such as health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home.” Addiction is the most severe form of substance use disorder.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, individuals who develop substance use disorders are also often diagnosed with mental illnesses such as anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Around one and four with severe mental illness also have a substance use disorder, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Genetics, issues with similar areas of the brain and exposure to stress or trauma are common contributing risk factors to mental illness and substance use disorder.
Signs of substance abuse
Friends and family are often the first to recognize when a college student is showing signs of a substance use disorder. Here are 10 signs to be aware of:
- Failing Grades
- Skipping Classes
- Appearing Tired and/or Depressed
- Unexplained Financial Changes or Difficulties
- Sudden Mood Swings With No Explanation
- Questionable Hygiene and Appearance
- Lying About Alcohol or Drug Use
- Using Alcohol or Drugs In Order To Get Through The Day or Cope
- Concern From Others Such As Faculty, Family, Peers, or Coworkers
- Withdrawing From Friends and Family
If you notice warning signs and suspect someone may be abusing drugs or alcohol, SAMHSA offers a variety of support resources. 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.
Learn how to support a friend you’re concerned about with substance use.
Students can utilize on-campus healthcare resources or virtual care for support and help navigating to the right level of care. Those with access to the TimelyCare app can explore actionable ways to practice, maintain, and choose healthy habits through the Self-Care Journey to Substance-Free Living.
Contact TimelyCare to discover how telehealth services can support substance use prevention.