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Drug Abuse In College Students: Trends, Treatment Options, And Resources

Drug Abuse In College Students: Trends, Treatment Options, And Resources

Most college students can attest to the fact that college life can be both rewarding and stressful. Some people who begin college are leaving home for the first time. College life can bring a whole host of new experiences that can be thrilling and also intimidating.

Unfortunately, not all of these new experiences may be to your benefit. College campuses are considered a major site for heavy drug and alcohol use. College can be where many people try drugs or drink alcohol for the first time. 

We’ve seen the movies and TV shows portraying college students as party-goers, drinkers, and consumers of illicit drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, and prescription drugs. This normalizes what can, for some, be a phase—and for others, becomes an entry point for a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.

If you’re concerned about your drug use, or that of a college student you know, help is available. Understanding the facts and available support services can help you make informed decisions about using drugs in college.

Here you can find information on:

  • Drug use and drinking trends among college students
  • Why college students may turn to drugs
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders among college students
  • Signs of drug abuse in college students
  • Treatment options for drug and alcohol abuse
  • Supportive resources, hotlines, and coping guides

How Common Is Drug Abuse Among College Students?

According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about one-third of college students aged 18 to 24 in the United States reported binge-drinking in the past month.

About one in five college-aged adults reported using illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, crack, and hallucinogens like LSD in 2014. Prescription drugs like Adderall and Xanax also are also frequently misused.

Using drugs is not the same as misusing them. Drug misuse or abuse refers to a pattern of unprescribed drug use that can negatively affect health, mood, and behavior. 

Researchers have found mixed results on whether young adults in college are more likely to abuse illicit drugs than people of the same age who are not in college. Binge-drinking and heavy alcohol use is very common in colleges, especially in Greek fraternities and sororities.

Rates of substance abuse by drug among college students include:

  • Alcohol: Nearly half of students who drink in college report having engaged in binge-drinking. Binge drinking refers to drinking at least four (for women) or five (for men) drinks within a two-hour period. 
  • Heroin: Thirty-eight thousand college students reported trying heroin in 2014. Over 60,000 college aged adults met the criteria for heroin use disorder in 2019.
  • Prescription Opioids: About 2.7 percent of college students reported misusing opioids in 2018. This is down from 5.4 percent in 2013 and excludes heroin misuse.
  • Other Prescription Drugs: About 11.1 percent of college students reported misusing Adderall in 2018. 
  • Cocaine: A quarter million adults aged 18 to 24 had a cocaine use disorder in 2019. Over 475,000 tried cocaine for the first time, according to a national drug use survey.
  • Methamphetamine (meth): In a study of nearly 20,000 college students by Ohio State University, about 6 percent of students reported using meth.
  • Marijuana: About 43 percent of college-aged adults report using marijuana. Two million college-aged adults (18 to 25) met the criteria for marijuana use disorder in 2019.

Drugs Commonly Abused By College Students

College students may have access to a number of drugs in college, depending on their social circles, their environment, and other personal factors. 

Alcohol

Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused drugs by college-aged adults. Some social circles, particularly Greek life, glorify alcohol-based bonding activities and social events that revolve around heavy drinking.

Unfortunately, drinking very heavily is dangerous. This can lead to short-term health concerns such as alcohol poisoning, and long-term health consequences, such as liver damage, addiction, brain damage, and disrupted sleeping patterns.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is also common among college students. 

  • Stimulants: Prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin—also known as “smart drugs”—are abused for their ability to boost energy, focus, and concentration. 
  • Depressants: like Ativan, Xanax, and Valium can also be abused for their ability to cause a feeling of intoxication, quell panic attacks, and produce a “high”.
  • Prescription pain medication: Opioids and other pain relievers can become addictive with chronic use. This can make it difficult to stop taking these drugs on your own and can become a risk factor for heroin use and abusing pain meds for their euphoric effects. 

Downers and stimulants are sometimes mixed to either counteract effects or produce a stronger high. This can create a dangerous cocktail of chemicals that may cause adverse effects, including drug overdose.

Illicit Drugs

Illicit drugs can also frequent some college campuses. For some college students, college may be a person’s first exposure to these drugs and access to them.

Illicit drugs used by college students may include:

  • cocaine
  • heroin
  • methamphetamine (meth)
  • LSD
  • ecstasy/MDMA
  • DMT
  • marijuana (in some states)

Some research suggests that illicit drug use is lower among college students, compared to non-college students of the same age range. 

This may depend on a variety of factors, however, including drug use in your social circle, access to illicit drugs, and personal attitudes towards illicit drug use.

Why College Students Turn To Drugs

College is frequently characterized as a time for exploration and experimentation. While this doesn’t exclusively refer to drug use, college is a time when many people do try alcohol or drugs for the first time.

The high rates of drug and alcohol use on college campuses can be attributed to a whole host of factors, including social, interpersonal, biological, and environmental factors.

Reasons for drug or alcohol abuse among college students include:

  • to relieve stress or anxiety
  • social pressures
  • to get high
  • self-medicating depression
  • to increase sociability
  • for sleep
  • to ease financial stress
  • curiosity
  • first time having access to these substances

Racial and cultural factors can also influence substance use patterns. Students of color can feel a heightened pressure to perform well in school, fit in with their white peers, and meet the expectations of their families, professors, and society more broadly.

Racial discrimination, or discrimination on the basis of gender identity, religion, and sexual orientation can also lead to negative coping mechanisms, such as heavy drinking and drug use.

Using Drugs To Cope And Escape Your Troubles

Drugs can excite, numb, and alter your senses in a way that can feel thrilling or comforting. Over time, your reason for drinking or using drugs may shift.

Maybe your drinking begins with going to a party where you’ll drink alcohol with friends. Then, your drinking becomes a way for you to cope with personal issues within the comfort of your dorm room. 

Drinking to forget about your looming course-load, your relationship troubles, the anxiety of trying to figure out what you want to do with your life and your studies.

Drugs can become a way to escape your reality. A way to cope. And in doing so, they can also become a destructive force in your life. You’re hungover. You’re sleeping too much. You’re less interested in going to classes or doing your coursework. 

Your friends notice, and you have a difficult time caring, or don’t know how to get them off your back without also addressing why they’re concerned in the first place. You lose your friends. Or, you make new ones who accept your drug use and do them with you.

People can make excuses for their drug use because they think the alternative would be more painful—with the alternative being acknowledging the problem and seeking help.

Mental Health Disorders And Substance Abuse Among College Students

College students with co-occurring mental health conditions are twice as likely to be admitted for substance abuse treatment, according to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Mental health conditions among college students include:

  • depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • eating disorders
  • bipolar disorder
  • borderline personality disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • schizophrenia

People with mental illness are at a higher risk for developing issues with drugs and alcohol. One reason for this can be the stress that comes with having a mental illness. People can use drugs to numb, escape, or self-medicate symptoms. 

Drug and alcohol abuse can also trigger symptoms of certain mental health disorders, such as delusions, paranoia, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and hallucinations. If you’ve never experienced these symptoms before, this can feel very scary. 

Letting the effects of the drugs wear off may make these symptoms go away. But that’s not always the case. If you’re experiencing serious mental or psychological symptoms, you may need to seek the advice of a medical professional to learn more about what this could mean.

Identifying Signs Of Drug Abuse And Addiction

Among college students and in society more broadly, drug and alcohol abuse is stigmatized. Although many people know these problems exist, recognizing the signs of substance abuse in yourself or someone you can about can be tricky.

Many people who struggle with their alcohol or drug use want to deny that they have a problem. Acknowledging you have a problem validates its existence. It legitimizes the need to change your behaviors and seek help.

Signs of substance abuse among college students might include:

  • drinking excessive amounts of alcohol on a regular basis
  • missing class or failing to meet deadlines due to the aftereffects of drug or alcohol use
  • hiding or lying about the extent of your substance use
  • using prescription drugs like Adderall or Xanax without a prescription
  • joking about how much you drink or use drugs
  • continuing to drink or use drugs despite negative effects on your physical health, mental health, relationships, or studies
  • using drugs to influence body weight, shape, or fitness habits
  • isolating from friends, roommates, or family in order to use drugs or drink
  • drinking or using drugs at events where drug use is inappropriate
  • drinking or using drugs more over time in order to feel the desired effect
  • being unable to go more than a day without your drug use without experiencing symptoms of withdrawal (e.g. tremors, fever, headache, nausea, anxiety)
  • feeling a lack of control over how much or how often you use drugs

If you’re struggling with a drug or drinking problem: You’re not alone. Heavy drinking and drug use is often glamorized or seen as a normal rite of passage in college. This perpetuates a narrative that doing so is “normal” and, in a sense, harmless.

Yet using addictive substances to manage stress, sleep, stay awake, study, or cope with other issues can be a harm to yourself. 

If your drinking or drug use is hurting you physically, psychologically, or making it difficult for you to generally live your life—it’s time to seek help.

Treatment For Drug Abuse Among College Students

Across the United States, there exist a number of drug and alcohol treatment programs. Some rehab centers offer treatment programs specifically designed for college students. College rehab programs can vary in cost, intensity, and their time commitment.

Here are brief descriptions of common types of treatment programs for substance abuse and addiction.

Detoxification

Stopping your drug or alcohol use isn’t as simple as quitting cold-turkey. If you’ve become physically dependent on these substances, stopping them suddenly and completely can be dangerous. 

This can trigger mild to severe withdrawal symptoms, including seizures and thoughts of suicide.

To safely stop using drugs or alcohol, it’s best to consult a doctor. Depending on how much drugs you use and how often, you may need to begin a detox program.

Detoxification, or “detox,” is the process of allowing toxic substances, such as drugs and alcohol, to leave the body. This process can be highly uncomfortable, and may last anywhere from three days to a week on average.

Detox programs are staffed with medical and behavioral support staff who can make the withdrawal process less uncomfortable and monitor for health concerns. 

This can be done through the use of supportive medicines, a quiet environment, and regularly checking your vital signs.

Learn more about Drug And Alcohol Detox Programs

Inpatient Drug Rehab

Getting drugs out of your system is only the first step of recovering from an addiction. If you lack a strong support system or have struggled with severe substance abuse, a doctor may recommend that you enter an inpatient or residential rehab program.

Many addiction rehab centers offer treatment programs that are designed to meet the needs of college students. College rehab programs may offer flexible treatment schedules or have staff who will work with your school to make sure you have the time you need to heal.

During inpatient treatment, you’ll be given a treatment schedule. During the day, you may attend individual counseling, group therapy, and meet with other medical and behavioral health professionals. You may also participate in recreational activities or do art, yoga, or go on hikes.

Treatment centers vary in the types of treatment services they offer and the flexibility they can offer full-time and part-time college students. 

Entering an inpatient program can give you a valuable opportunity to focus on yourself and your healing process, away from the stress of school, classmates, and other distractions.

Learn more about Inpatient/Residential Treatment Options

Outpatient Treatment Programs

Outpatient treatment programs are a less-intensive form of treatment that does not involve living at a treatment facility. Within an outpatient program, you will attend treatment for a predetermined amount of time during the day and return home afterward.

There are many different types of outpatient programs:

Outpatient treatment can be more flexible than inpatient treatment because it requires less of a time commitment. This can be more suitable to meet the schedule of a full-time college student or working professional. It may also be less expensive.

While participating in an outpatient program, you may continue to meet regularly with a counselor, attend support groups, and adjust medications with a medical doctor or psychiatrist as needed.

Outpatient Counseling 

If you have mild substance abuse issues that don’t require inpatient care, you may be directed towards a counselor. Talking to a therapist or drug counselor about your drinking or drug use can give you greater insight into your substance use. 

Behavioral therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) are some of the most effective treatments for both substance abuse and mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Behavioral therapy can help you set goals for yourself, identify the causes of your substance misuse, and find alternative strategies for coping with stress.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Dual diagnosis is a type of treatment for people who have both a mental health disorder and substance use disorder, such as alcohol abuse and depression.

Recovering from drug abuse can be more difficult when you have a mental illness, and vice versa. If you receive treatment for one, but not the other, this can increase your risk for relapse down the road.

Dual diagnosis is an integrated treatment that treats all conditions simultaneously. You can find dual diagnosis treatment through individual treatment providers, such as counselors, and in rehab centers across the country.

Resources For College Students Struggling With Substance Abuse

You know there are treatment programs available for college students who are struggling with their relationship with drugs and alcohol. Now what?

Here you can find an extensive list of resources to help you find treatment, seek immediate support, and mitigate the harm of your drug use.

Finding On-Campus And Off-Campus Treatment For Drug Abuse

Many colleges and universities offer onsite or virtual health services for their students. Often, this can include medical services, counseling services, and other supportive resources for mental health and substance abuse.

Each college and university is different in the types of student support services they offer. These services may be available at little or no cost. 

If you’re not comfortable seeking treatment at your school, your college may offer directories for where you can find treatment off-campus.

In addition, there are many online directories that can help you find virtual, tele-health, and in-person treatment near you. 

Treatment directories:

Support Hotlines And Online Chat For Substance Abuse And Addiction

Many non-profit organizations and health agencies in the United States offer free and confidential support options for immediate assistance, including online chat, text lines, and helplines. 

Text, call, and online chat options include:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
    • For treatment and resources: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline (toll-free)
    • 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) 
  • Mental Health America
    • 24-/7 Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline (toll-free)
    • 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • National Dating Abuse Hotline 
    • 1-866-331-9474 
    • Text “loveis” to 77054
  • Disaster Distress Helpline
    • 1-800-985-5990 
    • Text “TalkWithUs” to 66746
  • Crisis Text Line
    • Text HOME to 741741
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline
    •  1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
  • Trans Lifeline (for transgender teens and adults)
    • (877) 565-8860

Online Support Groups

For the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, most organizations and groups have either halted support group meetings or have moved in-person recovery meetings online. Support groups for drug and alcohol use are available nationally and locally. 

Depending on where you live, your local community may have additional support meetings local to your area. The phone application, Pink Cloud, can help you find support groups and meetings near you. 

Support groups for young adults struggling with addiction or recovery:

You can also check the website of your college or university to see if your school offers in-person or virtual support groups for students in substance abuse recovery.

Harm Reduction And Coping Resources

Federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and nonprofit organizations have compiled a number of resources for people struggling with substance abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Harm reduction strategies and guides:

General coping and wellness resources:

Finding What Works For You

Everyone is on their own journey. College is a time of self-discovery, and that includes finding your strengths, your passions, and your joys. 

If you’re concerned that a certain type of addiction treatment isn’t for you, there are plenty of treatment options to choose from. 

Don’t let your drinking or drug use take over your life. You’re not alone. Reach out for help today to find the treatment that works for you.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Journal of College Student Development - College Student Drug Use: Patterns, Concerns, Consequences, and Interest in Intervention
National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: College Drinking Prevention - Consequences of College Drinking
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) - 2019 Key Findings National Survey on Drug Use and Health
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) - TRENDS IN PERCEPTION OF RISK AND AVAILABILITY OF SUBSTANCE USE AMONG FULL-TIME COLLEGE STUDENTS, The TEDS Report Data Spotlight College Prescription Drug Use
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) - Drug and Alcohol Use in College-Age Adults in 2018
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) - Marijuana use at historic highs among college-age adults

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