College is a stressful time in the life of a young adult. Many students pay their way, taking out hefty loans to get their education. On top of that, they may feel pressure from their parents and peers to perform well in school. All this occurs during a time when adolescent brains are still developing, and a new level of freedom and responsibility is thrust upon them. Blowing off steam is a big part of the college experience. Unfortunately, this often leads to the use of drugs and alcohol.
The expectation to perform well academically isn’t the only way college students feel pressure. In the United States, college is seen as a time when young adults need to experiment, flex their newfound independence, and try new things.
Alcohol is often lumped into that experience, and binge drinking may be seen as a rite of passage on many campuses. Many college students are exposed to a high degree of drug availability on college campuses and may be exposed to more substances than they were at home. High drug availability is a significant risk factor for substance use disorders.
Learn more about the scope of alcohol and drug use on college campuses.
Recreational drug use is common among all adult age demographics, but it often begins with college-aged young adults. Recreational drug use is the use of a psychoactive substance for its perceived pleasurable effects.
Alcohol and marijuana are the most common recreational substances in the U.S., especially among young adults. Though both substances are illegal for college students under age 21 to use recreationally (in states where recreational marijuana is legalized), they are fairly easy to obtain. Alcohol, in particular, is associated with severe, immediate consequences, including alcohol poisoning and auto accidents.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), around 55 percent of college students drank in the past month before a 2018 national survey. About a third of students engaged in binge drinking. Binge drinking involves drinking more than three drinks for women and four drinks for men in two hours.
Not all students who binge drink develop an addiction, but about 20 percent of college students have alcohol use disorder (AUD), a serious disease that can lead to long-term alcohol dependence, health issues, strained relationships, and financial issues. Early exposure to alcohol may increase a person’s likelihood of developing a substance use disorder at some point in their lifetime.
Alcohol can lead to other consequences besides substance use disorders or alcohol poisoning. NIAAA reports around 1,825 college students between ages 18 and 24 die in alcohol-related car accidents and other injuries each year.
Alcohol also seems to increase instances of assault and sexual assault among college students. Each year, 696,000 students are assaulted by other students, and 97,000 students are sexually assaulted in alcohol-related situations. Binge drinking is also associated with higher instances of unsafe sex, suicidal actions, crime, and injuries.
Though alcohol is the most common substance to be used recreationally, it’s not the only drug of choice among college students. Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in states where recreational marijuana use isn’t legal. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 703,759 full-time college students used marijuana on an average day in 2012.
After marijuana, opioids are among the easiest illicit drugs to access in the country. Heroin and other opioids have been driving addiction and overdose rates up in the past few years. In 2013, around 5.4 percent of college students misused prescription opioids. Five years later, in 2018, there was a significant drop, and only 2.7 percent of students reported prescription misuse.
According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 0.5 percent of people between ages 18 and 25 reported using heroin in the past year. That accounts for about 157,000 college-aged people. In the same age group, around 0.8 percent, or 273,000 people reported past-year methamphetamine use. An even higher percentage of this age group reported using inhalants like volatile solvents, aerosols, and gases. Around 1.5 percent or 495,000 college-aged people used this category of drugs.
One of the most misused drugs in the college-age group is benzodiazepines (benzos), a central nervous system depressant. Benzos are sleep medications that can cause similar effects to alcohol when they’re misused. Some users combine benzos with alcohol or opioids for more intense but extremely dangerous effects. Mixing in this way can quickly lead to respiratory depression and death.
Benzos may also be used to counteract some of the uncomfortable effects of amphetamines or other stimulants, but that, too, can be dangerous. Around 4.5 percent or 1.5 million people reported misusing benzos in the past year of the survey.
Stimulants like cocaine are also popular; 874,000 people over age 12 started cocaine use in 2018, and 616,000 of these people were in the college-age range.
Not all substance misuse on a college campus is done for recreational purposes. Amphetamines are often used to enhance academic performance. Amphetamine drugs are used for the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and they may be easy to obtain on a college campus. Students use the drugs because they believe it will help them study and retain more information.
Stimulants can help increase wakefulness, which may be useful during all-night study sessions. Drug use may come as a result of academic pressure, especially if a student is competing with classmates who they believe are also taking stimulant drugs.
The misuse of amphetamines can result in substance use problems, anxiety, insomnia, and physical and psychological issues related to sleeplessness. In some cases, misusing stimulants can cause dangerous heart-related issues. In the 18 to 25 age group, about 2.2 million people reported misusing prescription stimulants in the past year in 2018.
Not every student who misuses drugs or alcohol will become dependent. However, drug misuse increases your risk factors for developing a substance use disorder. Around 2.6 million college-aged young adults had a substance use disorder related to illicit drugs in 2018, while 3.4 million had AUD.
Early exposure to drugs and alcohol can lead to a substance use disorder later in life. Addiction is a chronic disease that can take over several aspects of your life, including your health, relationships, and finances. Young adults that misuse drugs or alcohol may need early intervention services, which is the lowest level of care in addiction treatment. This level may involve education about the risks of alcohol and exploring any co-occurring issues like anxiety or depression that may be related to substance misuse.
A more severe substance use problem may require the full continuum of care in addiction treatment involving detox, inpatient, or outpatient services. Addiction treatment addresses multiple needs that may be related to addiction. Effective addiction treatment will also be personalized to your individual needs and may involve a variety of treatment options, including behavioral therapies, group therapy, family therapy, and individual therapy.
Lipari, R. N., Ph.D., & Jean-Francois, B., Ph.D. (2016, May). A DAY IN THE LIFE OF COLLEGE STUDENTS AGED 18 TO 22: SUBSTANCE USE FACTS. from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_2361/ShortReport-2361.html
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, October 01). Drug and Alcohol Use in College-Age Adults in 2018. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/drug-alcohol-use-in-college-age-adults-in-2018
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, April 13). What are inhalants? from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/inhalants/what-are-inhalants
NIAAA. (2020, February 10). College Drinking. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/college-drinking
SAMHSA. (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States. from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018.pdf