Guides to Substance Abuse on College Campuses

A Faculty Guide to Helping Students with Addiction

There is a unique relationship between faculty and student drug abuse. Teachers and other faculty are in a prime position to observe firsthand some of the warning signs of addiction on college campuses. Students struggling with an addiction may exhibit attitude and behavioral changes, attendance issues, and slipping scholastic performance. In many cases, a supportive authority figure might be just what students need to take addiction treatment seriously.

Faculty can play a unique role in reducing on-campus addiction rates. Call us today at to learn more about diagnosing addiction and what treatment options are available for college students.

Prevent Addiction on Campus

All colleges and universities have policies pertaining to student drug and alcohol use on campus, but rules and disciplinary actions can only do so much to alleviate rates of student substance abuse. Most people agree that increased access to treatment and greater public awareness of addiction issues are needed to reduce the prevalence of addiction in the U.S.1 By being attuned to students’ needs and helping connect them to treatment, faculty can play a unique role in reducing on-campus addiction rates.

Create a Safe Place and Eliminate Stigma

Drug treatment for college students is shrouded in stigma. In fact, stigma is the third most commonly cited reason people do not seek treatment for substance abuse, and almost 74% of people struggling with addiction feel the most stigmatized by their families.1 The fear of what friends and family will think or say is a major concern for students with addiction.

Many students are also afraid that their college professors and faculty will think poorly of them for coming forward about their addiction, or that they will get in trouble and face punishment rather than getting the help they need. As college faculty, it is your job to counteract this stigma so that students can reach out for the help they need to reclaim their life—and there are many ways to do this:

Keep regular office hours:

Make sure these hours are posted on your office door or window, in the class syllabus, in the online description of your class—anywhere you think students will see it. At the beginning of the semester, emphasize that students can come to office hours with any questions or concerns, not just issues that are class-related.

Keep interactions with students positive:

Substance abuse is just one of the many reasons students may slip in academic performance—financial troubles, arguments with roommates, cultural issues, parental divorce, or relationship problems could all be behind a poor test grade or missed assignment. When critiquing student work and providing feedback, refrain from using sarcasm, passive aggressiveness, or insensitive comments. Offer to meet one-on-one with the student to discuss opportunities to bring their grade back up—this meeting is the perfect opportunity to learn more about your student and discuss any underlying issues they may be having.

Make time for students:

Stay after class to answer questions, or responding sensitively to requests to speak in private. Students are more likely to open up about their substance use when they feel the person listening truly cares about them.

Educate yourself and other faculty:

The more you know about substance abuse and addiction, the more likely you are to respond sensitively and appropriately to a student in need.

College Students’ Biggest Fears About Speaking Up

To successfully eliminate stigma, college faculty must understand the many fears that may prevent students from speaking up about a substance abuse problem:

  • Will they get kicked out of college?
  • Will they face legal trouble for underage drinking or using illegal substances?
  • Will they be set back in school or not allowed to graduate?
  • Will their parents be notified?
  • Will they lose their financial aid or scholarships?
  • Will they be kicked out of clubs or campus housing?

On top of all these worries is the fear that future job opportunities will be lost because they sought help for addiction: Could prospective employers ever find out that they had a substance abuse problem?

All faculty should learn their campus’s policies toward student substance as soon as possible so that they’re prepared with answers if a student comes to them seeking help with any of the questions above. Learning the basics of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects patient privacy, is also helpful. Reassure students that protecting their health and safety is the top priority.

How to Encourage Students to Speak Up About Addiction

Ultimately, every faculty member must play a role in mitigating the counterproductive influence that on-campus stigma can have on students who are struggling with addiction. Building strong student-to-faculty relationships is a vital part of reaching those students who need help.

You can encourage your students to speak up by:

  • Taking the time to get to know the students you work with.
  • Watching for any abnormal behaviors, such as sudden, unexplained drops in attendance or school performance, changes in personal hygiene or attention to appearance, or signs of intoxication during class periods.
  • Offering yourself as a safe, non-judgmental resource for students to confide in.

Talking openly about substance abuse and the challenges, struggles, harmful stigmas, and fears that surround it can give a student more confidence when they decide to reach out for help.

Provide Peer-Focused Education and Support

College substance abuse is rampant. Over 50% of college students feel that they have a friend who drinks excessively or behaves erratically when drinking, and nearly 60% of these same individuals believe that friend displays symptoms of an alcohol use disorder.2 With the issue of substance abuse so widely recognized by fellow students, it might stand to reason that more people would be urged to seek help by their close friends. However, one of the biggest barriers for students seeking treatment is the fear of facing stigma from their peers and the public.3

It seems that college students have a relatively accurate perception of their peers’ substance use habits, including the risk of a use disorder. Encouraging peer intervention when a problem is suspected can help ease the fear of stigma to better reach students who are struggling with addiction. Having a friend bring up the issue of getting help (rather than a teacher or parent) may supersede the individual’s fears of asking for help.

In addition to friend intervention, using peer-focused education has been demonstrated to be an effective component of substance abuse prevention efforts.4,5 Not only can peer leaders help to re-establish norms surrounding substance use, it can encourage a social network that does not revolve around substance use and be a more approachable intervention for struggling students.4

As a faculty member, you have the opportunity to give peer leadership a voice. Talk with students about substance abuse habits to look out for in their friends and encourage them to make their concerns aware when there seems to be an issue. Explain that they are in the best position to observe potentially dangerous habits and to talk to their friends about getting help when their substance abuse seems to be putting them at risk.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse?

There are many ways that staff can help college students with a drug problem, and the first is to help them identify it as a problem. There is a set criteria that professionals use to identify and diagnose substance abuse disorder published in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (5th edition), or DSM-V, which describes the numerous behavioral and biological changes that an addicted individual may go through.

In order to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder, a person need only meet 2 of the 11 criteria within a 12-month period.7 Some of the criteria may not be easy for a faculty member to observe in a struggling student, but there are some criteria that can be observed by outsiders. If you think a student may be in trouble with substance use, pay attention to their behavior and look for the following:6

  • The student may seem to be spending a lot of time using the substance or recovering from its effects. For example, repeatedly coming into class while intoxicated or hungover.
  • The student may begin to neglect their scholastic responsibilities in favor of using the substance.
  • Social network changes may occur relating to the student’s substance use. They may begin to sit with different people or exhibit new, negative feelings toward their old friends.
  • School-related activities are given up or reduced due to substance use.
  • They may continue to exhibit signs of substance abuse despite having physical or psychological issues related to their substance abuse problems.
  • The student shows withdrawal symptoms when in class or when otherwise unable to use the substance.

If you notice any of these indicators in a student and you are concerned they may be abusing drugs, consider taking steps to help them find treatment to recover from their addiction.

If you notice any of these indicators in a student and you are concerned they may be abusing drugs, consider taking steps to help them find treatment to recover from their addiction.

How to Help Your Students

If it seems like drugs and alcohol are prevalent on college campuses, you’re right: 20% of the nation’s 13.4 million full-time college students have used an illegal drug in the past month, and 40% have consumed alcohol in excess in the last two weeks.8 As a faculty member, you likely recognize that college policies and faculty attitudes toward substance abuse—especially underage drinking—play a major role in the stigma surrounding young people’s addiction issues. Cultivating a rapport of trust and familiarity with your students can give them more confidence in seeking help.

How to React If a Student Approaches You with a Drug Problem

If a student comes to you looking for advice or help with a substance abuse problem, it is important to offer support, not judgment. Speak with them in a calming, comforting way, and make sure they know you are there to support them as they start their journey to recovery.

Discuss the steps the student can take to get help and, if you are able, offer to assist them in the process. Do not try to scare them into getting help—they have already expressed the desire to heal by approaching you. The best way to help them is to be supportive of their efforts to seek help and encourage their recovery.

How to Start the Conversation

If you suspect a substance abuse problem in a student and feel compelled to initiate the conversation yourself, try to do so in a neutral, safe space where you can talk one-on-one. Try to pick a spot where you think both you and the student will feel free to communicate openly and clearly. Examples include your office, a local café (at a semi-private table), or a nice, quiet spot on campus such as a lawn or courtyard.

When approaching the student, try to show that you empathize and relate to what they’re going through. If you have ever struggled with substance abuse yourself, or maybe even had a loved one who did, share your experience to help inspire hope. Ultimately, your focus in the conversation should be on raising awareness of the problem and advising change.9

There are 6 techniques for brief interventions that you can incorporate into your conversation, summarized by the acronym FRAMES:9


Describe the changes you have seen in them, including specific examples of times you have noticed impairment or harm.


Emphasize that substance abuse is their own responsibility—nobody can make them change or decide to get sober for them. Getting help is ultimately up to them.


Give them explicit verbal or written advice to reduce or stop their substance use.


No single approach to change will work for every student. Offer them a menu of alternative change options, from a general goal to a range of options for getting help.


Make sure you are using a warm, reflective, and empathetic approach. Listen to what they have to say and acknowledge that they are struggling.


Encourage their ability to make a change and express optimism regarding their possibility of recovery.

Following up the initial conversation is also an important part of intervening with a student’s substance problem. Regularly checking in on how they’re doing demonstrates how much you genuinely care for their well-being and can help to encourage them to seek help.9

What to Expect: Rebuttals and Common Reactions

It is not uncommon for people struggling with addiction to deny that a problem exists. It can be scary and uncomfortable to be confronted for your substance abuse problem, especially by an admired role model or perceived authority figure. The fear of being stigmatized or punished for seeking help can weigh on a student as they work through this crucial period of deciding whether to get help. Your sincere honesty and support can help counter these fears and ease the decision-making process.

Some of the most common objections to getting help are based in fear. Here are ways to counter some of the fears that students may have when it comes to getting treatment:

What will my friends and family think?

Your friends and family love you and would rather see you take action and get help than continue to spiral down into addiction.

Will I get kicked out of college?

If you seek the help you need, you will be more successful in college than if you do not get help. Addiction will take a much larger toll on your college performance than going into recovery treatment.

Will I be set back in classes?

The reality is that you probably will be set back in your classes as you work through treatment, but this will result in much better mental and physical health when you return to classes. Recovery treatment often requires your entire focus, and allowing yourself to work exclusively on recovery will better prepare you for going back to class without the hindrance of addiction.

Will I get in trouble for using the substance(s) or drinking underage?

Many college campuses employ harm reduction policies, and will not punish a student for coming forward about substance use to help themselves or a friend. Depending on your university’s policies, a student may or may not get in trouble. Regardless of the policy, seeking help for addiction is always better in the long run.

Will this affect my future job prospects?

Your health records are private, and no future employer will know about your struggle with substance abuse unless you choose to tell them. Allowing the addiction to worsen will have a much greater impact on your future career than getting help to better your life.

Some students may deny that a problem exists. Substance abuse can cause many different changes in a person, including neurological changes that can result in poor self-awareness, otherwise known as denial, during drug abuse.10,11 Often, the stigma surrounding addiction can permeate into the users’ own perceptions of what it means to be addicted to a substance.

Popular culture often portrays people who suffer from addiction as homeless, desperate, and at a general “rock bottom” point, but in reality this is often not the case. Many people who struggle with substance abuse have a safe place to live and can continue to function in college classes, even if their performance is slipping. Students may deny that they have a problem because they do not fit the stereotypical addict archetype, but this does not make their problem any less dangerous.

Combatting denial can be tricky, and there can be many factors to consider. Two major things to bear in mind when working with a student who is in denial are ambivalence and certainty.11 Those in denial are either ambivalent to the problem and any potential change, or they are certain that there is no problem and they do not need to change. Often, these two feelings underlie each other.

Challenging these feelings of ambivalence and certainty requires both acknowledging their legitimacy and pointing out the indisputable reality underlying addiction.

If a student is certain that they do not have a problem:

Ask them questions about how they perceive their own performance changes and why they think these changes could be occurring if not due to substance abuse.

If they are ambivalent about the problem:

Ask them about their available options (i.e., continue using the substance and see further performance changes, or get help with quitting and see their performance improve).

The main focus is to emphasize that they have the freedom to decide, even if the decision is difficult.

Talking openly about substance abuse and the challenges, struggles, harmful stigmas, and fears that surround it can give a student more confidence when they decide to reach out for help.

Finding the Proper Treatment

All college faculty are responsible for knowing the proper contacts on campus to help a student who is struggling with substance abuse. There are likely multiple avenues of support, from college counselors to the student health center, that may take part in the process of helping a student in need. Make sure the information you have for these resources is up-to-date and readily available in case a student comes to you in a time of crisis.

What Matters to Someone Seeking Treatment for Addiction

Addiction treatment is not one-size-fits-all. Every individual has their own needs when it comes to recovery, and students face decisions that are unique to the college experience, such as whether they want to take time away from class, whether they will live on campus during or after treatment, or even how they will cope with relapse temptations in a potentially substance-heavy college environment.

When working with a student who needs help, it is important to understand their concerns and how those concerns impact considerations for program selection. It is also important to be aware of the aspects of treatment that are valued by those who have worked through treatment. There is evidence that certain aspects of treatment may be overlooked or undervalued by those who are entering treatment for the first time, specifically group counseling, amenities, and recreational activities.12

People who have undergone addiction treatment also tend to value different aspects than their friends or family members do.13 While rehab alumni are more likely to prioritize internal aspects of treatment such as counseling, peers, and staff, their friends and family tend to prioritize external aspects such as price, family involvement, and administrative policies.13 Helping the student find a program that addresses all of these concerns can make a big difference for their recovery journey.

Seek Help Utilizing to Find Treatment in Your Area

Finding addiction treatment that is available near your college area is a simple search away. Visit the treatment search widget to help a student connect with a treatment facility in the campus region. For more information, call 1-888-520-6748 to speak with a treatment support advisor about program options, payment offerings, and enrollment details.

As a faculty member, you have the opportunity to give peer leadership a voice. You can help your student by calling to learn more about the treatment options available.

Students in Recovery

Once you’ve helped a student recognize that they have a problem that would benefit from seeking help for drug or alcohol addiction, you will become an important source of support and strength when they return to school after treatment. Or, if you learn that a student who’s new to you has recently been through treatment, you can become a trusted confidante in their sober recovery network.

How to Support a Student in Recovery

When a student is in recovery it is important to be supportive of their abstinence. Recovery is a process that continues well beyond treatment, and ongoing support from people who care can make a huge difference. Periodically checking in can help them stay on track and show that you care about their well-being.

When checking in on a recovering student, you don’t want to come across as overbearing. Respecting personal boundaries is very important, and sometimes a student will simply not be comfortable talking with a faculty member about their substance abuse recovery. Checking in can be as simple as asking them, “How are you doing?” or as in-depth as offering additional recovery resources.

Be sure to note any changes you’ve noticed since they worked through treatment, especially positive ones. Maybe their attendance has improved or their grades have changed. Bring this up as a starting point to ask how things are going so they know that their effort has shown results. This can develop into a larger discussion regarding post-treatment options to help them maintain abstinence. Emphasize that you are available to them as a resource for support and ask them if there is anything you can do to ease their recovery journey.

You can also suggest extracurricular activities such as joining a new club, practicing yoga, mindful meditation, poetry and writing, playing sports, learning an instrument, or any other option that you think that particular student would enjoy and thrive in. Take their personal interests into account, and if you have the authority to make an activity freely available, be sure the student knows this.

Take some time to learn about the recovery resources in your area, such as 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Knowing the local meeting schedule and other community resources will help you ensure that a student gets the help that they need. Having a community of sober-minded peers can be incredibly beneficial for a recovering person.

Understanding and Identifying Relapse Behaviors

One of the many ways college faculty will interface with substance and abuse and addiction issues is helping students re-engage with recovery after experiencing a relapse.

Relapse rates for drug addiction are between 40 and 60%, similar to rates for other chronic medical conditions such as type 1 diabetes, hypertension, and asthma (in which “relapse” is measured by not taking prescribed medication or following recommended lifestyle interventions).14 This means that there is a decent chance the students you help get addiction treatment will struggle with relapse, but it does not mean there isn’t hope.

Relapse is just another step on the road to recovery, and continuing to offer your support will help your student return to treatment, adjust the approach to be more effective, and continue to work on maintaining abstinence.

Relapse may present itself as a return of the pre-treatment symptoms, such as a decline in school performance or shifting of interests away from what used to enthrall them. If you notice that the student has started to fall back into these old, dangerous habits, you may want to try checking in with them. Make sure they know that you understand how challenging it can be to get clean and that many people don’t get 100% abstinent on their first try. Recovery is a lifelong process that takes consistent dedication to sobriety and building the skills to resist temptations.

It can also be helpful to ask them what else is going on in their life that may be contributing to the relapse. Cravings and use triggers are obvious contributors to relapse, but there can be other influences, such as the struggle to re-adjust to college life or trying to mend friendships with people they formerly used with.

One of the biggest contributors to relapse risk is stress.14 Emotional stress, school stress, interpersonal stress, and any other major life stressor can trigger a recovering student to relapse, so try to ask them about any things that may be causing them this tension. Stress can feel very out of control, and substance use can feel like it provides a sense of control over these extremely unpleasant feelings, though in reality it only makes them worse.

If you can, try to reduce the student’s stress. Take action to try to alleviate some of their stressors. This may mean extending an assignment deadline, offering accommodations for test taking, helping them connect with a therapist, or even working with them to find a physical outlet for stress, such as a sport or yoga class.

Most importantly, if you suspect a relapse, ask the student how they are doing and if they need any help. Emphasize that you want to help them, there is hope for recovery, and that rising to the challenge of abstinence is well worth their time and effort.

There is no shame is re-enrolling in treatment: almost half of all recovering people work through treatment multiple times. You can help your student by calling 1-888-520-6748 to learn more about the treatment options available. The most important thing is that you do not give up on them so that they do not give up on themselves.

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