Guides to Substance Abuse on College Campuses

Substance Abuse on College Campuses

College is a time of exploration and navigating new social situations. For many students, the combination of academic stress, high course loads, and peer pressures can lead to health issues, injury, unsafe sex, driving under the influence, arrest, and even suicide attempts related to problems with substance abuse and addiction.1

1800+

Students die every year from alcohol-related injuries.

97,000

Alcohol-related sexual assault victims.

$1.2 billion

Annual hospitalizations costs due to overdose.

4 of 5

Students drink and approve of alcohol use.

Drugs & Drinking on Campus

Despite numerous efforts to curb substance use among college students, colleges and universities across the country continue to struggle with high rates of drinking and drug use on campus. More than 1,800 college students die every year from alcohol-related injuries and roughly 97,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.1

Reports show that the rates of hospitalizations due to overdose on alcohol, drugs, and the combination of both increased dramatically over the past decade—resulting in over $1.2 billion dollars in annual costs.2

It is possible to experience all the new and exciting aspects of university life while refraining from substance abuse. Read on to learn more about substance abuse in college, the support services available, and how to find help if you or a loved one is battling an addiction.

College is notorious for being a time of exploration, self-discovery, and experimentation. For many young people who are transitioning into adulthood, this is the first time they are living on their own and making decisions without parental oversight.

Substance Use in College

For years, researchers have studied the reasons college students use and abuse substances, and the results point to a combination of factors. Newly gained freedom from parents, high levels of academic stress, and new social groups all contribute to a person’s likelihood of drinking or using illicit substances.

Institutional factors can also play a role in a student’s drinking patterns. Colleges with the following features and characteristics are shown to have relatively higher rates of student binge drinking:2

  • Division I Athletic Programs.
  • Greek Life.
  • Normalized Student Drinking.

Newfound Independence and No Supervision from Parents

College is notorious for being a time of exploration, self-discovery, and experimentation. For many young people, this is the first time they are living on their own and making decisions without parental oversight. Instead of being influenced by their parents, students look to peers and social networks for support and approval. This can lead students to adopt a new identity—one that is marked by alcohol or drug use.

Research finds that people who enter college use more drugs and alcohol than people who live at home or get a job after high school.3 One study found that 4 out of 5 college students drink alcohol, and college peers approve of alcohol use.3

Greek Life, Partying, and Binge Drinking

Students who live in Greek housing are more likely to drink excessively than those who do not.4 This is due in part to the fact that fraternities and sororities commonly hold social functions such as parties or mixers, and abstaining from alcohol could lead to exclusion from these social events.3

In addition to Greek life, these individual and environmental characteristics also contribute to excessive drinking:4

  • Being male.
  • Being Caucasian.
  • Attending a campus with a low number of minority or older students.
  • Being a student athlete.
  • Suffering from psychological distress.
  • Having access to cheap drink specials.
  • Being willing to endure the consequences of alcohol misuse.
  • Drinking at off-campus parties.
  • Drinking at off-campus bars.

However, being part of the Greek community does not have to be associated with drinking and drugs, and you can find volunteer and leadership opportunities through these organizations that do not revolve around partying.

Collegiate Athletics and Drug Use

Student athletes face unique pressures that too often lead to drug use or abuse. They are expected to be full-time students as well as athletic superstars. They must maintain a certain grade point average, carry a full class load, attend practice, and perform well in games just to keep a spot on the team.

This grueling schedule and work environment can become overwhelming and lead some athletes to develop emotional, psychological, and developmental problems. Studies have noted that student athletes are significantly less likely to receive treatment for a mental illness such as depression, perhaps because, in a sports environment, mental illness may be seen as a weakness.

Athletes who aspire to play professionally may feel like they are constantly being evaluated and tested, and turn to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism for these feelings.5 Other reasons an athlete may turn to drug use include:8

  • Self-medication for mental health issues.
  • Managing pain from injuries.
  • Retiring from a sport.
  • Gaining a competitive advantage.

Additionally, some athletes use stimulants to maintain weight or improve their performance. Although men are more likely to misuse stimulants, both sexes use them for similar reasons (weight loss and performance enhancement).6

It is interesting to note the relationship between athletics and substance use is different for each drug and sport. For example, alcohol use is positively associated with participation in sports, while cigarette use is inversely associated. Marijuana use is highest among male hockey players and female soccer players,5 and 7.8% of lacrosse players report using amphetamines, compared to just 1% of track athletes.7

Academic Pressures Can Lead to Substance Use

Research has consistently found a connection between students who develop drinking problems and the following self-reported issues:9

  • Poor coping skills.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • A perception that they are more stressed than their peers.

Most students feel a tremendous amount of pressure to do well in college, and may feel like they need to use stimulants to stay alert, study longer, cram for a big test, or to cope with high levels of stress.10

Across the country, students are using stimulants without a prescription at alarming rates. Students usually hear about the stimulants through word of mouth and buy the drugs from someone who says they will help them perform better on tests or get better grades. Students will often continue to abuse stimulants despite negative side effects such as insomnia, sweating, increased heart rate, and loss of appetite.11

Studies have noted that student athletes are significantly less likely to receive treatment for a mental illness such as depression, perhaps because, in a sports environment, mental illness may be seen as a weakness.

Drinking and Drug Use Statistics

People aged 18 to 25 have the highest rate of substance use disorders in the country.12 Additionally:

  • Nearly 60% of college students between the ages of 18 and 22 reported drinking alcohol in the past month, and nearly 2 out of 3 reported binge drinking.
  • Roughly 20% of college students meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 students report that drinking has a negative effect on their studies, including missing classes, failing exams, and falling behind.

Of course, alcohol is not the only substance the college students are abusing:13–17

  • 4.6% of full-time college students report daily marijuana use.
  • 4.3% of college students report using cocaine in the past year.
  • 1.9% of full-time college students reported using hallucinogens (LSD, PCP, ecstasy) in the past month.
  • 5.3% of full-time college students reported misusing prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives in the past month.
  • Between 1993 and 2005, the number of students using prescription opioids, such as Vicodin, OxyContin, or Percocet, increased by 343%.
  • The most commonly misused medications among college students are prescription ADHD medication like Ritalin or Adderall, and prescription painkillers, usually opioids.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

College Drinking Habits

Excessive drinking is widespread at college campuses, but certain regions of the country experience higher levels of binge drinking than others. According to a national survey of 1,400 college students of all ages, students in the Midwest and southern parts of the country reported rates of alcohol consumption as high as 92.4% and 89.8%, respectively.19

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking is defined as 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men in about 2 hours.20 Consuming excessive quantities of alcohol can lead to intoxication, blackouts, memory loss, injury, and, in the most extreme cases, death.21

This grueling schedule and work environment can become overwhelming and lead some athletes to develop emotional, psychological, and developmental problems.

Most Common Drugs

Alcohol

In 2015, 79% of students polled in a national survey said they had used alcohol in the past year, and 63% had used alcohol in the past month.27

Marijuana

Marijuana is currently the most prevalent illicit drug used on college campuses, with nearly 1 in 3 students using the drug within the past 12 months.28

Stimulants: Ritalin, Adderall, Methamphetamine, Crystal Meth

The rate of stimulant use on college campuses has risen 4% since 2008—5.7% of college students reported using amphetamines in 2008, compared to 9.7% in 2015.29

Cocaine

Studies show that young adults are more likely to drink heavily while using cocaine, and mixing the two substances can be extremely dangerous.30 In fact, the risk for death is 20 times greater when alcohol and cocaine are used together.30

Hallucinogens: LSD, Ecstasy (MDMA), Salvia

In 2015, 1.9% of full time college students reported using hallucinogens in the past month—representing a 2.1% decline from figures reported in 2013.14,31

Students will often continue to abuse stimulants despite negative side effects such as insomnia, sweating, increased heart rate, and loss of appetite.

Collegiate Recovery Programs

For students who have received treatment for substance abuse or addiction, transitioning back to college to finish their degree can be quite challenging. Most students in recovery find themselves in an environment with a high prevalence of drug and alcohol use. In the mid-1980s, several colleges recognized this predicament and came together to create campus-based Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRPs) to support students in recovery.32

CRPs can be implemented in various ways, depending on the number of students in recovery and the resources available on campus. Some universities provide sober dorms or other housing options. Every college campus is unique, but the overall benefits of CRPs are similar, in that they:

  • Offer a positive and safe space for students in recovery.
  • Allow students to access a continuing care program without dropping out of school or taking time off.
  • Encourage students to access emotional support.
  • Create a supportive network of sober peers on campus.

Students in collegiate recovery programs reported higher overall GPAs and graduation rates, and lower relapse rates than students who did not participate in a CRP.33

Since 2000, the number of CRPs on college campuses have grown from just 4 programs to 80 programs nationwide in 2017.33

To see if your college has a CRP, visit collegiaterecovery.org/programs.

Or, if you would like more information on how to start a program at your school, visit collegiaterecovery.org/starting-a-collegiate-recovery-program.

Being part of a recovery community on campus can help you avoid relapse and stay committed to reaching your treatment goals. According to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, approximately 95% of the students who participate in recovery programs on campus maintain their recovery.34

Sources
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  2. White, A. M., Hingson, R. W., Pan, I., & Yi, H. (2011). Hospitalizations for Alcohol and Drug Overdoses in Young Adults Ages 18–24 in the United States, 1999–2008: Results From the Nationwide Inpatient Sample. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 72(5), 774–786.
  3. Borsari, B. & Carey, K. B. (2001). Peer influences on college drinking: A review of the research. Journal of Substance Abuse, 13(4), 391–424.
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