Going away to college is often the first time young adults are away from home for any stretch of time. Students are keen to fit in, prove themselves, and often overjoyed with their newfound freedom. These freedoms are often taken too far, however, as college campuses tend toward a higher frequency of partying and illegal drugs.
Many college administrators look the other way, thinking of binge drinking and illicit drug use as rites of passage. Fraternities and sororities are famous for episodes of hazing, which quite often include drinking and other drugs. In addition, college students may be overly worried about image, and some drugs may work as weight regulators to help combat that “Freshman 15,” even though these drugs may be harmful in other ways.
Substances commonly abused by students in college include:
- Prescription medications (including stimulants, central nervous system depressants, and narcotics)
- Over-the-counter drugs
USA Today publishes that half of the 5.4 million fulltime college students in America admit to binge drinking or using drugs at least once a month
Alcohol on College Campuses
The most abused substance on college campuses is alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that four out of five college students drink alcohol. This may not seem like that big of a deal, but keep in mind that three-quarters of this population is under the legal drinking age. College students are traditionally between 18 and 22 years old, with 21 being the legal drinking age in America. Even more important, half of these drinkers engage in binge drinking, which is consuming more than three or four drinks in a sitting in an attempt to get drunk.
Many factors, in addition to its easy access, make alcohol the substance of choice for students. Upperclassmen over age 21 can buy alcohol legally and distribute it to younger students, and it is relatively inexpensive.
Some of the reasons college students drink are:
- To relax
- In an attempt to fit in
- As a response to peer pressure
- To party or have fun
- As a stress reliever
- To lower inhibitions
- To reduce anxiety or depression
How Alcohol is Portrayed to College Students
Alcohol is glorified in movies, music and television. Everyone has watched movies or shows featuring college drinking parties and feats involving massive amounts of alcoholic beverages. It looks fun, and many young adults already have less impulse control or a limited perception of the consequences. Many college students can also set their schedules so they have classes only a few days a week, leaving three- and four-day weekends open for partying and recovering.
Some marketing campaigns seem to be targeting this young age as well, featuring fruity and sugary, good-tasting alcoholic beverages. Another dangerous trend popping up on college campuses is the mixing of alcohol with energy drinks for a different kind of buzz. This can be even more dangerous than the alcohol alone due to the caffeine or other stimulants found in the energy drink which can mask the depressant effect of alcohol.
Aside from the health risks of abusing alcohol, like damage to the liver and heart, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, or CASA, ran a study that found that more than 1,700 students die every year from alcohol-related injuries, including alcohol poisoning. Similarly, CASA also found that alcohol played a role in 100,000 rapes or sexual assaults and 700,000 reported cases of assault.
Driving under the influence and alcohol-related crimes are other risk factors for alcohol abuse. Studies have also shown that when drinkers start young, they have a higher tendency to develop a dependence.
Getting High Instead of a Higher Education
Second to alcohol on college campuses is marijuana, reefer, Mary Jane, weed or pot. According to a survey conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, 47 percent of college students have tried it at least once, with 30 percent admitting to using it in the past year. Like alcohol, marijuana is popular in the media and present in music, movies and television.
Marijuana is the source of much controversy as many states have legalized its use for medical purposes and a few have even legalized it for recreational use. Many people are under the impression that marijuana is not harmful or addictive. The National Institute of Drug Abuse states that nine percent of users do actually become addicted, however.
Marijuana is relatively inexpensive and easy to come by. Obtaining a medical marijuana card for pain management or other reasons may not be difficult, and students with a card are liable to share with those who don’t have one. While marijuana is typically smoked, it can also be eaten in brownies, candies, or other edibles, or even drank in tea.
Marijuana creates a euphoric feeling or “high” in the user, which is often abused for some of the same reasons as alcohol is. College students may use marijuana to calm nerves, ease anxiety, to fit in with their peers, or just to feel good.
Marijuana does carry many side effects, however, including:
- Loss of coordination
- Increased heart rate
- Lowered immune system
- Higher chance of risky behavior
- Traffic accidents while impaired
- Poor memory functions
- Slowed reaction times
- Respiratory issues
- Lack of motivation
Many users of marijuana also are binge drinkers or use other illicit drugs as well. In fact, the Harvard School of Public Health survey found that 98 percent of drug users abused more than one substance at a time.
Students, Stimulants and Other Illicit Drugs
While not as popular or prevalent as alcohol or marijuana, party or club drugs like cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy and LSD still have a place on college campuses as well. CASA reports that between 1993 and 2005, illegal drug use including heroin and cocaine increased 52 percent.
Ecstasy is one of the more popular club or “rave” drugs; it’s a stimulant and hallucinogenic derivative of methamphetamine. A Monitoring the Future Study found that 12.7 percent of college students had used Ecstasy at least once in their lives. These drugs alter mood and enhance sensation, acting as stimulants or uppers, and some as hallucinogens.
Just like the other drugs, however, these drugs carry some heavy short- and long-term side effects and risk factors. Ecstasy is often used to increase pleasure and can lead to risky sexual behavior. Cocaine and heroin are highly addictive and increase heart and blood pressure, putting users at high risk for fatal overdoses. These drugs alter brain chemistry and can bring about severe withdrawal symptoms.
Poly-drug use, or the use of more than one drug at a time, is common among college students, especially at the party or club scene and increases all of the risk factors.
Rise of ‘Study Drugs’ and Prescription Drug Abuse
A growing epidemic on college campuses is the abuse of prescription medications. These medications are easy to obtain, either through a valid prescription or from another student’s prescription. According to a study in the Journal of Addictive Diseases, 62 percent of a group of students with a valid prescription for ADHD medication were diverting it to students without prescriptions.
Using a medication beyond its intended purpose is considered abuse and can be dangerous. The CDC reports that 100 people die in the United States daily from drug overdoses, with a majority of them being prescription drug-related.
College students are under constant pressure to perform academically, and many are looking for a boost. Students are often tempted by ADHD drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, which can improve focus and efficiency, acting as a brain boost. According to CNN, 81 percent of students don’t see the danger in illegally using these stimulants as a “study aid,” and 30 percent of college students are estimated to have tried them at least once.
What many students don’t know is how highly addicting these Schedule II substances are. Since these drugs are prescription-based, many fail to see the danger in them. Like cocaine and other stimulant drugs, these “smart drugs” may work in the short-term, but they can cause devastating long-term damage to the brain.
Other prescription drugs commonly abused by college students include narcotic painkillers and central and nervous system depressants. Central nervous system depressants include tranquilizers, muscle relaxants and sleep aids. Valium and Xanax are considered tranquilizers, and they are benzodiazepines which work to relax muscles and ease anxiety. They are among some of the most prescribed medications in the country and highly addictive.
Vicodin and OxyContin are popular opioid pain relievers that abusers often crush and snort to get high.
These narcotics work to depress pain receptors in the brain and create a euphoric feeling. They are fairly easily accessible, inexpensive, and, like other prescription drugs, thought to be safer and not carry the same stigma as illicit drugs since they have a medicinal purpose. These drugs are highly addictive, however, and the CDC reports that three out of four prescription drug overdoses are caused by painkillers.
College Students and OTC Drug Abuse
Another class of drugs found on college campuses includes over-the-counter drugs like cough medicines containing dextromethorphan or DXM, such as Nyquil or hundreds of others. These are easy to obtain as they are legal and can be bought at the corner store or found in a medicine cabinet.
Abusers may drink an entire bottle or down all the pills in one sitting in order to feel a buzz and an out-of-body type experience. More than one in 10 teenagers have reported trying this, according to a Partnership Attitude Tracking Survey. While these drugs can cause dizziness, nausea and loss of motor control on their own, most are also combined with an antihistamine or other ingredient which can cause even more side effects.
Social media and blogs discuss new ways to abuse these drugs and new cocktails and combinations to try. There are sites designated for teenagers, encouraging them to try more and more dangerous things involving drugs.
Tips on Recognizing Addiction
One of the prevailing issues with discovering an addiction in a college student is that you may not have as much contact with them on a daily basis. Students go off to college, leaving families to see them only on holidays and during the summer months. This is a time of great change in most young adults, and spotting a personality difference that is due to addiction may be difficult.
Here are a few warning signs to look for:
- Poor academic performance
- Drastic changes in weight
- Withdrawal from friends and activities
- Unidentified pill bottles
- Trouble with the law
- Traffic accidents
- Violent outbursts
- High-risk sexual behavior
- Skipping classes
- Excessive sleepiness
- Decreased focus
- Lack of motivation
While any of these can be warning signs, they also can just be signs of typical adolescence. The best thing you can do is keep the lines of communication open. Find out about their lives, schedules, their friends, etc.
Stopping the Slide
Early detection offers the best chance of recovery, so keep your eyes out for the warning signs. While it is harder to monitor a teenager who has moved on to a college campus, by scheduling regular talks and visits, you can hope to detect any issues that may arise. If you do think that your college student has become addicted to drugs or alcohol – according to USA Today, 22.9 percent of college students meet the criteria for drug or alcohol dependence or abuse – finding the correct treatment plan is essential. Social stigmas may prevent them from getting help on their own.
Dual Diagnosis care offers the right treatment plan for each individual. Highly trained staff will work to discover what specialized needs the young adult may have and work to attend to them.
Working to treat the whole person and not just the addiction is important. Recognizing what triggers an addict and helping to overcome these triggers through therapy and family support, coupled with detoxification when necessary, prove successful methods to help avoid relapse.
We can help you get started down the road to recovery today. 844-768-0308
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.