The popular cultural image of college students getting high or drunk is one that’s pervasive. While it can seem like a piece of fiction torn out of a Hollywood script, the reality is that excesses that often lead to drug abuse are very common, and addiction is a serious risk for many college students. A combination of social pressure, academic stress and even boredom plays a role in making the college environment a challenging place to be for anyone who might be prone to addiction patterns.
The Scale of the Problem
Thanks to studies assembled by both the government and a variety of academic institutions, the prevalence of drug abuse in the college-age population is fairly well-documented. According to an NIH study, 32.4% of college students have engaged in binge drinking within the last two weeks, with bingeing being defined as consuming five or more drinks in a single session.
A further 4.9% of college students reported that they were daily smokers of marijuana. Especially concerning is that 9.9% of those in college also reported using Adderall in the last year, and a further 2.4% said they had used Ritalin. About the only silver lining in the statistics is that college students do appear to consume nicotine at lower rates than the larger population.
Based on medical criteria, 22.9% of those in college full time are considered people with either drug or alcohol misuse disorders. About 20% of college students have used an illicit drug in the last month. A further 37% have reported using an illicit drug of some kind at some point during their time in college. These addiction patterns also correspond with a number of related issues. This is demonstrated by the facts that:
- Drug-using college students are nearly twice as likely to engage in sexual intercourse.
- Drug and alcohol use are strongly correlated to unintended injuries and deaths.
- Violence and sexual assault cases are correlated with drug and alcohol use in college.
A Culture of Abuse
Ritualization of drug and alcohol use in college often has a compounding effect. A study of college-age female drinking, for example, demonstrated that the sense that one’s friends regularly consume alcohol lends the behavior an appearance of normalcy in institutions of higher learning. Among both genders, the strongest indicator that a person will consume drugs or alcohol is whether or not their same-sex friends are consuming them. This happens for a variety of reasons, including:
- Socialization through fraternities and sororities
- A sense of being free for the first time after leaving home for school
- Having legal access to alcohol upon turning 21 years old
- Gaining access to illicit drugs by making new friends through school
- A desire to experiment with different substances and a culture that encourages it
Worryingly, there is also a culture in many colleges that discourages people from seeking treatment. Fellow students often dismiss addiction patterns as not being a big deal, and peer pressure is often exerted on anyone who is seen as weak. Even if a person wants to enter a treatment program, they often fear that losing drugs and alcohol in their lives may also mean losing all of their friends.
Making the situation more difficult is that college administrators often display signs of learned helplessness. In many schools, college drinking is literally an institution, one that’s built into everything from Greek life to college football games in the fall. Greek life is seen as a pathway to success later in life as evidenced by the disproportionate percentage of CEOs who were fraternity members. Also, many universities quietly avoid upsetting the apple cart because people who have been through Greek life are significantly more likely to contribute money to the school and its athletics programs. That ultimately leads to a feedback loop where drinking is quietly tolerated and accepted as a core selling point of the entire college experience.
What often works out well for the university, however, can be an addiction spiral waiting to happen. Drug abuse patterns have a tendency to stick for life among college students. For example, a government-backed study found that almost half of all former fraternity members displayed signs of alcohol use disorders at the age of 35, a full decade after most have completed school.
Many Vectors to Drug Abuse
An especially worrying part of the college experience is that there are numerous vectors that lead students to use drugs and alcohol. While we tend to rightly think of Greek life as the primary avenue by which addiction develops, students can end up doing drugs or alcohol due to a surprisingly large number of other factors in their lives. Stress, in particular, plays a role for many who take drugs while attending college. Some of the stress-related drug and alcohol activities include:
- Abuse of prescription amphetamines to power through studying and taking tests
- “Tying one on” over the weekend as a reward for getting through a tough week
- Drinking or drug use as a way to cope with loneliness
- Abuse of drugs and alcohol in order to take the edge off of stress
The drugs of choice for college students are also impressively varied. College students may develop addiction problems, for example, from OTC medications such as Nyquil or Unisom due to sleeplessness. College-age women often have body issues, and some will develop drug abuse disorders due to consumption of weight-loss pills.
A big factor in drug abuse among college students is that they tend to not see themselves as the kinds of folks who are “problem” drug users. Many who are in college make a point to steer away from drugs that they consider “trashy.” From the perspective of student life, an addict is someone who shoots up or snorts lines. Therefore, by definition, their drinking alcohol, smoking weed or using Adderall can’t be a true drug problem.
What’s at Stake?
Abuse of drugs and alcohol can lead to a number of major issues, and in the worst scenarios, it can lead to death. Alcohol, for example, can lead to an array of disturbing outcomes, such as:
- Decreased cognition
- Increased risk-taking behavior
- Shrinkage of the brain
- Potentially lethal swings in metabolism and body chemistry
- Organ failure
- Psychotic episodes and dementia
No form of drug abuse leads to a situation where the body gets better with more misuse over time. Indirect issues are also common, thanks to motor function impairments associated with most drugs. This can lead to a slew of problems, including car accidents and injuries due to stumbling. There is also a long-established cultural association between drinking and fighting.
Sexual assault has a strong correlation to drug and alcohol misuse. In fact, 97,000 cases of drug- or alcohol-related rape are reported by college students on an annual basis. Even in cases of consensual sex, college students who have used drugs are more likely to:
- Not use a condom
- Get a sexually transmitted disease
- Become pregnant
- Have regrets
Drug and alcohol use disorders also track closely with suicide, and the perception of college as a high-stress environment often causes a feedback loop that can lead to someone ending their life. One survey that included more than 67,000 college students indicated that one-fifth had engaged in self-harm or suicidal ideation in the last year.
As is the case with the general population, many college students are engaged in patterns of self-medicating behavior. These can be attempts to cope with:
- Undiagnosed personality disorders
- Major life changes
While college-age drinking and drug abuse are often represented in the media as nothing but good times and excitement, the harsh reality is that mental illness and drug problems often go hand-in-hand.
Hiding Problems From Families
Another issue that tends to make college alcohol and drug abuse issues difficult to deal with is that students are often in an excellent position to hide what’s going on from their families. Many students only come home over the holidays, and they can frequently dismiss languid behavior as just the product of having been through a tough schedule during the semester.
The majority of parents don’t take the time to acquaint themselves with their college kids’ friends, and a number simply assume that their college friends will be similar to the ones they had in high school. All of this leads to a pattern where it’s easy for college students to avoid having the topic of addiction come up at all.
Family members can, however, keep an eye out for some telltale signs of drug abuse. These may include:
- Recent changes in behavior, such as increased twitchiness, tiredness or panicking
- A noted decline in grooming and bathing
- Wearing the same clothes for multiple days in a row
- Putting on sunglasses at odd times in order to hide their eyes from others
- Going to the bathroom too often and for no obvious reason
- An ability to stick to commitments
- Forgetting important dates
- Significant weight loss
Most universities have taken steps to assist college students who are worried they may have drug abuse issues. Almost every campus in America has a student health center, and many are included with student activity fees that are paid each semester. If you’re worried that you or someone you care about might have a problem with misusing drugs or alcohol, paying a visit to the center is a good first step.
A lot of college students are also concerned that entering into a treatment program could cause a disruption in their academic plans. Virtually every college in the U.S. now has a form of academic hold in place to ensure that a student can enter treatment without having to worry about their class schedules or grades. You may also be able to seek treatment on an outpatient basis and continue with your studies with little or no disruption. In either scenario, take the time to explain your situation to your academic advisor in order to avoid potential repercussions that might come from declining performance in school.
Larger universities tend to have clubs for folks who are in recovery. It’s a good idea to seek these groups out because they can offer support and allow you to make friends in a setting free of alcohol and drugs. They may be able to point you toward nearby treatment programs, too. Given that recovery and education are both processes that take years, you may find the club environment to be a good fit.
The important thing is to acknowledge that you may need help and begin working toward a solution. There will be setbacks, but it takes persistence to kick addiction issues. With a structured approach, you can address drug abuse and ensure your long-term success in both academics and life.