College Substance Abuse a Growing Crisis on College Campuses
Recreational drug and alcohol use has long been seen as a hallmark of the four-year college experience, with most graduates of American universities able to recall fond memories of frat parties and wild spring break trips from their college years. However, social drinking and experimentation are more and more frequently crossing the line into problematic substance abuse and, in some cases, full blown addictions. College students and their parents should be aware of the dangers of substance misuse, signs of addiction, and available treatment options for substance use disorders.
What causes drug addiction?
College students face a multitude of risk factors that place them at risk for developing a drug addiction. With parties and Greek Life becoming more and more of a cornerstone of the college experience, the availability of drugs and alcohol—and the pressure to partake—is substantial. Above and beyond the allure of the party scene, the day-to-day stressors of academics can cause students to turn to various drugs to relieve stress or to improve academic performance.
Additionally, for many students, college is their first experience with living away from home. The lack of parental oversight and, in some cases, homesickness, can also be drivers of problematic substance use.
Causes of stress in college
College students face multiple and compounding pressures which often result in high levels of stress. Some students are held to high academic standards by their parents, or even themselves. Others must perform academically to maintain scholarships or eligibility for financial aid. Still other students’ anxiety is piqued just by the pressures of passing classes that are far more challenging than those they were accustomed to in high school.
Finances, both immediate and long term, are additional sources of stress for college students. Tuition costs are ever rising, and many students incur substantial student loan debt to cover their costs of attendance. An uncertain job market may leave students and their families fearing a scenario in which they are unable to get a job that pays well enough to cover monthly installments for the loans they took to obtain the schooling to qualify for said job.
College stress statistics
According to the American College Health Association, more than half of college students in a 2015 survey reported feelings of “overwhelming anxiety” in the period of a year. Nearly half (47.8%) reported feeling hopeless at some point in the prior twelve months, and an overwhelming 81.6% of the sample felt exhaustion in the last year not related to physical activity. Half of the students in the study also reported that they experienced three or more traumatic events in the previous year, such as the death of a close friend or family member, intimate partner problems, financial difficulties, personal health issues, and more.
Depression and drug abuse
Frequently, individuals with substance use disorders concurrently struggle with other mental health conditions. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 30% of college students struggle with depression. Signs and symptoms of depression include sad, anxious, or hopeless feelings for more than two weeks, loss of interest in activities that previously instilled pleasure or joy, changes in sleep and appetite, decreased energy, and more.
Depression can be both a cause and consequence of substance abuse, and vice versa. Often, individuals struggling with depression turn to substances to cope and, in the process, can become addicted. Conversely, the physical, social, and emotional consequences of problematic drug and alcohol use can lead to depression. In either case, depression and substance abuse tend to perpetuate each other. It is imperative that individuals receive treatment for both of these conditions if they are present. It would be very difficult for someone to maintain abstinence while still in the throes of depression. Similarly, it is nearly impossible to treat someone who is depressed if they are abusing alcohol and other drugs because therapies and medications will not work properly when these substances are present in the body.
Common types of substance abuse in college
According to a report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) in 2007, nearly a quarter of full-time college students in the US are estimated to meet the clinical criteria for a substance use disorder diagnosis. This is nearly three times the percentage of substance use disorder diagnoses estimated among the general population. The report also explains that certain types of substance abuse are rising sharply on college campuses.
- Alcohol – has long been considered a trademark of the college experience, even for students under the legal drinking age. For 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old students, alcohol can be accessed at parties or by upperclassmen friends who are of age who can purchase alcohol for them. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that 60% of college students between the ages of 18 and 22 admitted to drinking alcohol in the past month, and that approximately 1,800 college students die annually from alcohol-related accidents and injuries.
- Binge Drinking – Drinking a large quantity of alcohol in a short amount of time is considered “binge drinking.” This pattern of alcohol consumption poses grave threats to health and safety, causing damage to internal organs such as the liver, and increasing the likelihood of alcohol-related injuries.
- Marijuana – As national attitudes toward marijuana use become increasingly lax—with most states now allowing some form of medical marijuana use, and several legalizing full recreational use of marijuana for adults—the perception of risk related to marijuana has decreased substantially among youth and young adults. However, marijuana causes substantial impairment that can lead to short and long-term health, safety, and other personal consequences.
- Prescription Drugs – The president recently declared opioid abuse and subsequent overdose deaths a public health emergency, after more than 59,000 lives were lost to overdose, the majority from prescription painkillers. Prescription drug abuse is rampant on college campuses, and many students who become addicted to painkillers turn to street drugs like heroin, which is much cheaper but may be mixed with powerful synthetics, like Fentanyl.
- Adderall – This stimulant drug is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other attentional disorders. However, many students with no attention impairment use Adderall non-prescribed as a study aid, allowing them to stay up and study through the night before an exam or to get a paper done. The drug has a high potential for addiction if not taken appropriately and can have other adverse health consequences.
- Ecstasy – Commonly known as “molly,” this drug is typically taken in a tablet form and is often a mix of drugs like cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, and various amounts of the drug’s original compound, MDMA. Even a single use of the drug can result in acute and immediate health consequences, including irritability, sleep problems, impaired memory and attention, aggression, and impulsivity.
Other, less commonly abused substances on college campuses can include cocaine, heroin, synthetic marijuana, benzodiazepines such as Xanax, and a host of other prescription and illicit drugs.
How do drugs affect the brain
Substance misuse results in several types of changes in the brain of the user. Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring chemicals in the brain that send electrical impulses throughout the body which let the various body parts and organs know what to do, from thinking to breathing to muscle movement and everything in between. Substances of abuse mimic neurotransmitters in the brain, flooding the brain’s receptors with excessive amount of “feel good” chemicals, resulting in the euphoria or “high” commonly associated with drugs. With continued use, the brain ceases to produce as much of the naturally occurring chemicals, so, without drugs, the individual’s baseline feelings of joy, happiness, and contentment become lower than they were prior to using.
Drugs of abuse also impact the part of the brain responsible for motivation and reinforcement of survival-promoting behaviors, also known as the dopamine system. Throughout the course of evolution, the brain would “reward” the person with the good-feeling dopamine chemical to reinforce behaviors like eating and sex which promote personal and species survival. Alcohol and other drugs trigger the release of dopamine in exponentially higher amounts than our brain is used to. This, too, changes the brain’s baseline expectation of how much dopamine it needs to function at any given time. Continuing to use truly feels like a matter of survival for the addicted person.
Short and long-term effects of drugs
In the short term, substance abuse places users at risk of overdose, accident or injury, sexual assault, and a number of other adverse consequences resulting from impairment. Relatively quickly, with continued use, a person can become physically dependent on a substance. This involves tolerance, in which individuals need larger quantities of a substance to achieve the same effect, and withdrawal, in which individuals experience physical symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and muscle cramps if they go too long (usually a few hours) without using the substance.
Individuals who are addicted also experience social and emotional consequences related to their use. For college students, these may include failing classes, strained family relationships, changes in groups of friends, financial difficulties, and legal trouble. Due to the changes to the brain and body described above, individuals with substance use disorders can become very depressed, with or without their substance of abuse.
Methods of treatment for college drug abuse
There are a variety of treatment modalities and levels of care for substance use disorders. Patients are matched to the appropriate treatment setting based on factors like their substance of choice, their physical and mental health, their home environment, and their motivation to receive treatment.
- Detoxification – Individuals who are physically dependent on opioids, alcohol, and benzodiazepines are likely to require detoxification—a period of medically-supervised withdrawal in an inpatient setting. In a detox, patients are provided medications that alleviate some of the symptoms of withdrawal and receive regular monitoring of vital signs by medical staff.
- Residential/inpatient rehabilitation – In a residential treatment program, patients are medically stable and are no longer in acute withdrawal. In this setting, they are able to work on the social and psychological aspects of their addiction. Rehabilitation programs typically focus on group and individual therapy, which may include modalities like 12-step facilitation, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), family therapy, and more. Most treatment programs incorporate mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques to assist with cravings, and also emphasize addressing trauma, which is prevalent among people with addictions.
- Outpatient programs – Depending on the severity of use, the patient’s circumstances, and other factors, treatment may be provided in an outpatient setting following, or in lieu of, inpatient treatment. Outpatient programs also focus on counseling and psychosocial issues, but also focus on the individual’s incorporation of skills in maintaining abstinence outside of a structured environment.
Many treatment programs incorporate or recommend medication assisted treatment (MAT), which involves the use of medications that decrease drug cravings and/or prevent the individual from getting high if they were to use an illicit drug. Additionally, most treatment programs address both mental health and substance abuse issues simultaneously, since most individuals with substance use disorders do have one or more co-occurring mental health diagnosis.
During and after formal treatment, peer-based and recovery support services are encouraged to assist individuals in transitioning from early recovery to stable recovery.
Counseling for parents of drug addicted students
Most college campuses have a counseling center, and this might be a good place to gain support and resources if a student finds him or herself beginning to turn to drugs and alcohol to deal with stress and anxiety. Parents, too, can benefit from the resources provided by campus counseling programs.
The Recover provides high-quality resources and information for parents and students about a broad range of substance abuse, treatment, and recovery-related topics.
Rehabilitation for drug addicts in college
If you or someone you love is struggling with a drug addiction, do not wait to seek help. Addiction can be a deadly disease, and grows more lethal and more difficult to overcome with time and continued use. Help is available. Call (888) 510-3898 to learn more or find a treatment facility.