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Signs of Substance Use in College Students

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College is a time for exploration and experimentation for young adults. The freedom of being on their own for the first time in their lives is liberating. Making new friends, joining fraternities or sororities, and participating in extracurricular events are all popular things to do in college. 

Using addictive substances is also a part of college life for many students.

While more than half of students will stick with the usual alcoholic beverages, others might dabble into other drugs such as marijuana, Adderall, or others. Without family structure at home, some students could wander off into the abyss, leading to failing grades, missed classes, and substance use disorders (SUDs). 

It can be challenging for some parents to determine if your child has developed a substance use disorder. For the first time in their life, you are not around to monitor their health and well-being, leading to a disconnect. The only opportunity to see your college student is when they come home to visit a few times a year. During this time, you might notice a change in your child since you dropped them off at their college campus.

These changes may be profound in some cases, leading to a new appreciation for home and family, self-growth, and responsibility you may not have seen before. Other times, however, these changes may be a cause for concern. You may notice changes in their appearances, unhealthy weight loss, a poor attitude, or a loss of interest in longtime friends and activities. Some of these may register on the parental radar that leads you to investigate further.

How to Talk to Your College Student About Substance Use

At the stage of college-level parenting, you’ve established a deep catalog of things to look out for and a vast network of peers who can help validate your curiosities. Your peers can help you figure out what’s going on with your college student and if they’re connected with old friends, and what they’re doing. 

If you believe your child has gone off track compared to your friend’s children, it might be the right time to expand your investigations. Keep in mind that your inquiry could be more challenging because your child has been independent for some time. 

You must first take a deep breath—teenagers and young adults are sensitive; keeping this in mind, we must remind you to approach your child delicately and not with drama. If you approach your child with aggression, anger, panic, or accusations, it’s a recipe for disaster. You can expect the child to shut down and tell you nothing. Lecturing, yelling, or threatening your child will cause them to withdraw, lie, and sneak around. 

At this point, the last thing you want is to do is drive a wedge between you and your college student. If you assume your child is having problems away from home, the home should be a safe place they can come to for help. You won’t know what kind of support they need unless you have developed a relationship built on trust, so work on building that platform. 

If you’ve witnessed signs of substance use in your college student, you must ask open-ended questions that allow them the opportunity to be honest. You should not punish them for being honest because you might be shocked by some of their answers. They might admit to experimenting with drugs or binge drinking alcohol, but make sure to let them know they have your love and support.

I’m Noticing Changes in My College Student – Should I Worry?

As described above, change is a healthy part of your child’s life, but if you’re noticing troubling signs in your college student, you may wonder if it indicates substance use. Here are some of the signs you should look out for that may show your child is experimenting with drugs or alcohol.

  • Mood swings
  • New friends
  • Sudden withdrawal from activities that used to bring them joy
  • Excited or tired, often for no reason at all
  • Spending a majority of their time locked in their room alone when at home
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Financial troubles or a sudden burst of spending or requesting money
  • Missing money around the house
  • Inexplicable absences in school or sports

You must always let your college student know about your concern for their safety, health, and wellbeing, but you should never try to control their lives from home by interfering with their independence. With that said, you should never be afraid to reach out for help. If your child is abusing drugs and in danger of developing a substance use disorder, seek help immediately. 

Addiction is a disease, and as you’d expect with any other illness, treating it right away will lead to the best results. It can destroy your entire family, and you shouldn’t try to fix this by yourself. 

Most Common Drugs of Abuse Among College Students

College is a time where your child will establish their beliefs and test values. While many students will move through the process without issue, others might use this time to rebel. Many of them won’t be satisfied with being told by teachers or parents what’s dangerous regarding alcohol or drugs and will be influenced by social events and peers. 

  • Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug on college campuses—an estimated one out of three students admitted to binge drinking in the past month.
  • Daily marijuana use is now at its highest rate among college students in more than three decades, and 36 percent of full-time students admitted to using it in the past 12 months, according to the University of Michigan.
  • The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that Adderall misuse is the highest among 18-to-25-year-olds.
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Other less commonly used substances include:

  • Ecstasy
  • Tranquilizers
  • Cocaine
  • Prescription narcotics
  • LSD
  • Heroin

The primary concern is that 44 percent of students who report drug use admitted to driving a motor vehicle, which could be fatal. Despite college students considering drug experimentation dangerous, they still misuse them. Risk-taking is attractive to their age group, and boys report misusing substances at a higher rate. The human brain is still maturing in college, and a person might not make sound decisions until their late 20s.

Experimentation with drugs may have nothing to do with the thrill of it, and they may abuse prescription drugs for “responsible” reasons, such as using Adderall to hype their focus and study longer. No matter the reasoning behind their decision, it’s still drug abuse that can lead to addiction.

If you’ve witnessed signs of substance use in your college student, it’s in your best interest to discuss the subject calmly and rationally. You may decide that getting help is the best option. No matter what you choose, remember to keep a healthy and open dialogue for the best results. 

Sources

NIH (October 2020) College Drinking. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/college-drinking

NIMH (October 2020) Substance Use and Mental Health. from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health/index.shtml

University of Michigan (September 2014) College Students’ Use of Marijuana on the Rise. from https://news.umich.edu/college-students-use-of-marijuana-on-the-rise-some-drugs-declining/

NIH (December 2013) College Student Drug Use – Patterns, Concerns, Consequences, and Interest in Intervention. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3856915/

Monitoring the Future (2016) National Survey Results on Drug Use. from http://www.monitoringthefuture.org/pubs/monographs/mtf-vol2_2016.pdf

John Hopkins University (February 2016) Adderall Abuse on the Rise Among Young Adults. from https://hub.jhu.edu/2016/02/16/adderall-abuse-rising-young-adults/

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