Understanding Addiction in Students
College can be the best time of a person’s life. Lasting friendships are made, new skills are learned, and the student prepares for a bright future full of possibilities. However, college also comes with its own unique set of stresses. Handling a staggered class schedule, navigating new venues of social interaction, and managing an often-unprecedented level of independence are all part of the college experience. There are long but rewarding nights spent studying and cramming for exams.
There is also the opportunity to experience new things. These often include alcohol and substances like drugs. While many claim that such behaviors begin and end on college campuses, the statistics simply do not support that. The National Institutes of Health has studied college alcohol use in-depth. A 2018 national survey shows that nearly 55% of full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 drink alcohol in any given month. Nearly 37% engage in binge drinking, which is defined as having five or more drinks on a single occasion for men and four or more drinks for women.
The study also reveals the consequences. In 1,519 deaths per year among college students, alcohol was a factor. Alcohol also contributes to 696,000 physical assaults on students per year as well as 97,000 sexual assaults, instances of sexual abuse, or date rapes.
The Prevalence of Alcohol and Drug Use on College Campuses
Drug use among college students is also a growing trend. Drugabuse.gov reports on the rising numbers of students who both occasionally and chronically use drugs. Forty-three percent of college students try marijuana each year. These are the highest rates in 35 years. The rate of college students who use marijuana on a daily or near-daily basis is just under 6%.
Thankfully, the Drugabuse.gov study showed that recreational opioid use has recently dipped to below 3% among university students. However, misuse of stimulants, such as attention deficit disorder medications, is on the rise, being used by close to 15% of male students and nearly 9% of female students.
Then there are benzodiazepines, or “benzos,” which are used primarily to treat anxiety, panic disorders, muscle tension, and seizures. The strongest of these is Rohypnol, colloquially called a “roofie” or “the date rape drug.” This medication is so powerful that it is no longer legal to prescribe it in the United States.
Even the milder benzodiazepines can cause college students to develop a substance use disorder. These drugs, also nicknamed “downers” or “tranks,” have been responsible for over 38,000 American deaths over the past few years. This benzo study affirms that, of the past 5 million drug overdoses by college students, 31% have been from benzos.
What Drugs Are Being Used on Campus, and at What Rate?
The rates of student drug use have been extensively studied by the National Institutes of Health. Students who have admitted to any illicit drug use have disclosed which drugs they have used. The table below, from that study, reveals which drugs exist and are the most prevalent on college campuses. The percentages represent lifetime misuse of the drug per study participants.
- Marijuana: 92%
- Cocaine: 16%
- Amphetamines, including methamphetamine: 24%
- Hallucinogens, including LSD, mescaline, and mushrooms: 21%
- Opiates and opioids, including both prescription painkillers and heroin: 6%
- Inhalants, including gases, glues, nitrates, and solvents: 8%
- Designer drugs, including ecstasy, MDMA, and “special K”: 12%
- Steroids: 1%
- PCP: 4%
The study also showed a tendency of college students to misuse mood stabilizers and antidepressants as well as over-the-counter medications for sleep, allergies, and respiratory problems. Substance use disorders on U.S. college campuses are prevalent and are on the rise.
Causes of Alcohol and Drug Use Among College Students
The reasons why a student develops a substance use disorder vary. However, there are some key trends that illustrate many of the factors that lead to substance use in the college environment. For alcohol, these reasons include:
- Ease of access: Possession, distribution, and use of alcohol are often not directly controlled by college administrators.
- Peer pressure: The need to fit in often increases during college years, leading to high-risk behavior.
- To have fun: Weekend parties are a hallmark of the college experience. Alcohol is ubiquitous, even on dry campuses where alcohol is specifically banned.
- To lower inhibitions: Alcohol is considered a quick way to make social interactions easier. Students who struggle with communication problems may turn to alcohol as a means of interacting with peers more easily.
- To relieve stress: Many stresses come with the college experience, including greater independence and responsibility, more rigorous academic studies, exams, and feelings of loneliness or homesickness.
- To self-medicate: Many students turn to alcohol as a means of coping with their anxiety or depression. The National Institutes of Health has shown that most mental health disorders arise in one’s late teens or early 20s.
Many students use drugs for the same reasons that they use alcohol. Distinct reasons why students turn to drugs include:
- The need to spend long hours studying for exams
- Self-experimentation, in which students want to try new experiences and explore boundaries
- General curiosity in a culture where drug use is not better controlled
- To sleep, especially after long study periods or during periods of acute anxiety, depression, or insomnia
- To manage pain from injuries incurred in athletics or accidents
The Immediate Consequences of Alcohol and Drug Use
While a substance use disorder or overdose is sometimes the end result of drug or alcohol use, there are also immediate consequences that impact social status, self-esteem, and academic performance. Based on the NIH study from above, 46% of students who used drugs admitted to saying or doing something that was significantly embarrassing in a social situation. Also, 45% felt ashamed or guilty about their drug use.
Forty-four percent of drug users reported that they had not studied, had not done homework, or had received a poor grade on a test or for the semester as a result of their use. Further, 43% reported feeling ill or generally physically bad after use, and 39% overspent or spent a good deal of money because of their use.
According to a 2012 National Institutes of Health study, 35% of students who use drugs have missed classes, meetings with friends and family, or work. Thirty-four percent had done something impulsive that they regretted later. Eighteen percent had gotten into a physical altercation while using, and 21% had damaged property. Sixteen percent had lost a close, personal relationship, 13% had been in legal trouble (such as being arrested), and 11% had been put on academic probation, been suspended, or been expelled from school.
What is most worrying are the following numbers from this same 2012 study. It showed that 65% report enjoying their drug use. Forty-two percent admitted to driving while high, and 28% took more of the substance or used longer than they had intended to. Fifteen percent had continued to use to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Finally, 24% had continued to use drugs despite the presence of physical or mental health impacts of use. These last numbers reveal not only the dangers of substance use on college campuses but also that physical and psychological dependence, the first steps to a substance use disorder, were present among a significant number of college-aged users.
When It Becomes Time to Seek Help
While any drug use is cause for concern, the point where it significantly disrupts one’s life, when it is physically endangering, or when dependence is beginning to take hold is a key warning sign that help is needed.
The following questions can help students determine whether they need help with their alcohol or drug use.
- Do you find yourself unable to stop using alcohol or drugs, even when you want to?
- Has your alcohol or drug use significantly disrupted your daily life in a way that you do not like?
- Are you spending more and more time alone or more time getting, using, or recovering from drugs or alcohol?
- Are you experiencing sleep disruptions (insomnia or sleeping at off hours), missing classes or time with friends, or generally neglecting responsibilities as a result of your alcohol or drug use?
- Have your grades dropped or has your academic performance suffered as a result of your use?
- Is your tolerance to your drug or alcohol of choice increasing, causing you to use more often or in larger amounts?
- Have you lost interest in your favorite activities or in spending time with friends? Alternatively, do you find yourself getting buzzed or high to tolerate or enjoy these activities more?
- Are you experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop using alcohol or drugs?
- Are you engaging in dangerous or illegal activities to obtain drugs or alcohol?
- Are you worried about your physical or mental health, or that you may harm yourself or others, because of your alcohol or drug use?
If the answer is yes to any of these questions, it may be time to seek treatment. Even if you feel unready, nervous, or scared about the idea of getting help, it is always best to seek that help before the problem escalates beyond your control. Even if the problem is out of control, getting treatment can help you regain that control and reclaim your life.
Where to Seek Help
There are many resources on and off college campuses that are confidential that students can use at any time. Below are some of the options.
- Students can go to their campus student health center or clinic. Doctor-patient privilege laws protect any information a student discloses to a physician. This applies if the student is aged 18 or older.
- Students can also reach out to their primary care physician. The same confidentiality applies to campus doctors.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a national hotline that is confidential and available 24/7/365. It is 1 (800) 662-HELP (4357). Both English and Spanish language services are available.
- The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) also has a 24/7/365 hotline. That number is 1 (800) NCA-CALL (622-2255). This hotline specializes in referring people to local programs and services, making it easier to get treatment as quickly as possible.
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Hotline is 1 (800) 662-HELP (4357). This hotline can also help people find immediate, local help for alcohol or substance use.
- Local rehabilitation and recovery centers are also available to help. They often provide confidential advice and accept people 24 hours a day. NFA Behavioral Health, a part of Granite Recovery Centers, is located in New Hampshire. It provides services that range from outpatient therapy, support groups, and private counseling to inpatient rehabilitation, multi-approach therapy programs, and medical detoxification. They are available to call on a 24/7 basis, any day of the year.
While alcohol and drug use can spiral out of control, college students have many options to reclaim both their lives and their academic careers. Whether you suspect you have a problem with drugs or alcohol or are currently struggling with a substance or alcohol use disorder, you always have the chance to put yourself on the path to recovery, and you can do so right now.