Substance Abuse in College Students

New Freedoms. New Risks.

The first steps of freedom in college brings new life issues as young adults may no longer be bound by parental supervision. Along with acclimating to academic life, many may experience new perceived norms and what is common and acceptable – especially related to using alcohol and illicit drugs, and misuse of prescription medications.

While there are very troubling statistics concerning binge drinking,  there has been a growing phenomenon of on-campus recovery groups. Bringing together sober students, college health professionals, student advisors and professors, these groups provide support to students in recovery and to those struggling with abuse or addiction. Addiction Recovery Campus (ARS) has over 160 groups across the states and everyone is welcome to participate and to step up to make a difference.

Even with all the wonderful outreach from collegiate recovery groups, there is still a dark side in that some students still feel that they have it under control. They may say to themselves: I am smart enough; I am young enough; I am just having fun; I am in control. But in reality, may are dangerously teetering between social use to abuse and dependence.

During this transition between high school and adulthood, college students make up the largest group of substance abusers within the United States. There were more than 12.4 million college students in the year 2014 according to the United States Census Bureau. While some might believe that binge drinking and drug experimentation among college students aged 18-24 is a “time-honored tradition”, the reality is that substance abuse within this demographic has risen to shocking levels.

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Learn About the Four Stages of Addiction

The threshold between experimentation and dependency can be slight, and depending on individual factors, the transition from freedom to addiction can be quite sudden. The four stages of alcohol and drug addiction are the experimentation, regular/social use, substance abuse, and substance dependence. These four stages are widely accepted as patterns common to most addiction scenarios and the following are common behaviors during each of these stages:

  • Physical cravings and withdrawals
  • Inability to study, live and work without using
  • Driving under the influence
  • Lack of awareness for personal safety
  • Sexual promiscuity, unprotected sex
  • Cheating, secrecy, lying and hiding
  • Decline in hygiene and self-care  
  • Changes in appetite and health
  • Memory issues, lack of focus and concentration
  • Academic decline and/or probation  
Stage One: Experimentation

Experimentation can have several motivating factors including peer pressure, social exposure, and campus parties and sporting events. Sometimes students may experiment as a way to gain relief from stress or as an escape from academic stressors.  Whatever the reason, the use is always irregular and occasional and does not usually disrupt their life with negative consequences such as academic or medical side effects. In this stage, the user is able to discontinue at any time without adverse side effects. It should be noted that any individual exposing themselves to illicit drugs and alcohol opens themselves to the real risk of developing habitual or daily use.

Stage Two: Regular Use

While using a drug or other addictive substance on a daily basis does not mean that full-blown addiction will occur, the likelihood of dependence greatly increases when individuals begin using on a regular basis. It is still possible to stop use at this point, the slippery slope of stage three is high. Most in stage two are able to control how outsiders view their behavior and will make substantial effort to hide use. Unfortunately, individuals in stage two are often in denial about their use and continue to drive while under the influence or behave erratically.

Stage Three: Abuse

This stage is marked by continued drug and alcohol use regardless of negative outcomes and confrontations regarding use. This is the stage where an individual can become dangerous to themselves and others, as the ability to make appropriate choices is negated by drug-seeking behaviors and decline in academic responsibility.

Stage Four: Dependency

Once the user is dependent on substances to function, addiction is their new reality. The individual is now psychologically and physically bonded to their drug of choice. The disease of addiction is complex as our understanding of how brain health changes, we do know that the effects of long-term alcoholism and drug addiction can be permanent. An addict is damaging their organs each time they use, as dosages and timing no longer matter to them.

Start Living a Better College Life

Located in Huntington Beach, California, Coastline Behavioral Health offers all levels of care (partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, outpatient and sober living) in our men’s and women’s alcohol and drug treatment programs. Our exceptional staff has over 100 years of combined experience in treating addiction and behavioral health issues such as PTSD, OCD, depression, anger management, and trauma. We have a unique approach for care based on individual treatment plans and experiential therapy, including their music and faith-based programs that cater to special interests of clients.

We are committed to helping you renew hope and to show you how to take back your life by assisting with the following:

  • Embrace safe and sober activities.
  • Build a recovery support group.
  • Expand life and study skills.
  • Identify and avoid relapse triggers.
  • Manage co-occurring disorders.
  • Achieve personal and academic success.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

For young adults that leave home to live on college campuses, the freedom that comes with living away from home for the first time can lead to dangerous substance abuse. It is reported that students living on college campuses are twice as likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. College campuses with fraternities and sororities often encourage underage drinking and other hazing practices that include the use of illicit drugs. For some students, the pressures felt to fit in and make friends can lead to uncharacteristic risk-taking behaviors. Social drinking often starts with the desire to relax so that socializing with fellow students is less overwhelming.

The use of drug and alcohol use among college students is often attributed to the following:

  • Class Workload. For many students, the increase in self-managed study hours can lead to stimulant use including Ritalin and Adderall.
  • Peer Pressure. Surrounded by others who are choosing to try prescription and illicit drugs for the first time, or binge drink, the desire to fit in can lead to substance experimentation.
  • Stress.  Along with the increase in study hours, course loads and student jobs, the need to find ways to cope with stress can lead to drug abuse.
  • Experimentation. With newfound freedoms that college campus living brings, the temptation to try new things can often lead to drug and alcohol use and abuse.

Binge Drinking and Drug Abuse Statistics

According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), substance abuse in college students has become a major concern. Alcohol abuse can often lead to binge drinking and other dangerous drinking habits and drug abuse has grown to epidemic proportions. The 2005 CASA report revealed that half of campus college students binge drink or admit to illicit and prescription drug abuse.  Of these 3.8 million students, 25% are reported to have substance abuse and addiction issues. The use of heroin on college campuses rose by over 50% between 1993 and 2005 while the number of students abusing prescription painkillers grew by over a shocking 343%.

Stimulant and sedative drug abuse on college campuses has also become an urgent issue requiring an increase in drug abuse awareness. It was reported the abuse of Ritalin and Adderall, both stimulants, increased by over 90% and those using Valium or Xanax increased by a whopping 450%. These are shocking statistics considering the relatively short window of reporting.  Alcohol and drug abuse among the same demographic in private religion-affiliated colleges was reported to be very similar to the comparable public institutions.

College Drug and Alcohol Trends and Statistics

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), a 2015 study revealed some upsetting statistics regarding the health and welfare of college students between the ages of 18-24:

  • Over 1800 student deaths are directly attributed to alcohol. This includes accidents, injuries, and overdoses.
  • Almost 700,000 students reported being assaulted by fellow students under the influence of alcohol.
  • Approximately 25% of all students reported an increase in academic consequences for their alcohol abuse.

Drug Use On College Campuses

The use of drugs has lead to the increase in the perception that substance abuse is socially acceptable. This can often lead college students to feel that their drug use is not problematic. The increase in stimulant abuse by college-age students has become so mainstream that abuse of the prescription drug is rampant on campuses. The desire to perform academically while leading a party lifestyle can pressure individuals to take drugs in order to maintain GPA’s. While alcohol abuse is by far the most prevalent substance abused, marijuana is also a growing campus issue. Recent legislature has opened the door for marijuana use and abuse in schools across the nation. It has been reported that marijuana use equals alcohol abuse on some campuses.  Another popular drug abused is ecstasy or MDMA. This drug is often referred to as a rave or party drug and is widely distributed and sold in dorms and Greek houses.

Drug abuse among college-age students is a major issue on college campuses today. Some of the more common drugs abused by students living on campus are the following:

  • Heroin
  • Marijuana
  • Opiate Painkillers
  • Stimulants
  • Cocaine
  • Ecstasy

At-Risk College Students

While the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse and experimentation among campus college students is recognized, the demographics of high-risk groups is often not. It might be interesting to note that male students are considered higher risk than females. There are several social and environmental circles that lend themselves to higher rates of substance abuse than others. Some of these high-risk groups are the following:

  • Members of Greek organizations such as Fraternities and sororities.
  • Student-Athletes participating in team sports such as football and basketball.
  • All students living in campus housing
  • Students attending college in the Northeast
  • First-time and young college students
  • Students with high-stress majors such as pre-med and pre-law
  • Any students with mental health issues and concerns.

Recognizing Abuse and Addiction

For parents with students in college, the ability to keep tabs on behavioral and psychological changes due to substance abuse is difficult. Once they have left the home for their college years parents and loved ones may only see them for short periods of time during the standard academic year. The ability to recognize the signs and symptoms of substance abuse can elude parents and educators. There are some warning signs of alcohol and drug abuse and addiction that should be noted. The following is a list of these warning signs.

  • Changes in weight
  • Negative academic consequences
  • Run-ins with law enforcement
  • Changes in sleep habits and motivation
  • Signs of depression or anxiety
  • Uncharacteristic behaviors
  • Prescription pill bottles
  • Attention deficits
  • Unprovoked violence
  • Loss of important relationships
  • Lack of communication via phone or text

Substance Abuse among College Athletes

Collegiate substance abuse including alcohol, marijuana, opiates, stimulants and other prescription and illicit drugs has been on the rise in recent decades. Student-athletes are prone to the same drug abuse issues as their non-athletic peers although it appears that binge drinking rates are higher among this demographic. This can include the ingestion of more than 10 drinks within a single evening. Since the mid-1980’s, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has surveyed substance abuse among student-athletes. The following statistics were reported for the last year:

  • Experienced alcohol-related blackouts: 30%
  • Experienced a hangover: 65%
  • Missed Classes: 23%
  • Law enforcement troubles: 8%
  • Become ill: 51%
  • Regretted behaviors: 32%
  • Experienced memory loss: 30%

As researchers learn more about the link between collegiate drug and alcohol abuse, the ability to create beneficial prevention and educational programs has grown. Educational institutions working with agencies such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have compiled dated that has lead to positive changes in prevention and intervention programs offered on and off campus.

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