Reviewed By: Barbara Rexer, DSW, LCSW, LCADC, CCS, ICCS, DRCC
For many students, college is both liberating and overwhelming. The freedom to make decisions can feel rewarding, but academic pressure and the stress of a new environment can also make college a confusing and lonely time. COVID-19 has compounded the stress for many students, adding financial stress, uncertainty over the future, and a feeling of isolation as classes move online.
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Amidst new academic, social and financial pressures that students face in college, the widespread availability of alcohol and other drugs on campus (and at home) can lead to a temptation to self-medicate. This is particularly true for students predisposed to mental health disorders. Understanding the risks can help you make better decisions both during and after college. Here’s what you need to know, and how to access help for mental health and substance use disorders even when you’re not on campus.
Why College Students Are at Risk
As a college student in your late teens or early 20s, you face a lot of new pressures at a time when your brain hasn’t yet fully developed. Research shows that your frontal lobe, or “judgement center,” continues to develop until roughly age 24. Specifically, the neural pathways that monitor dopamine levels are still forming. This leaves your brain more vulnerable to the ways that drugs hijack your brain.
Here’s how: Dopamine is an essential neurotransmitter that helps to maintain energy, motivation and mood stability. Many drugs work by mimicking dopamine, leading the brain to produce less of it. Once your body has processed a drug, you crave more to restore the feeling of an artificial dopamine high.
When you start to rely on drugs to manage your dopamine levels, it can be very difficult to restore natural production without medical help. You can read more about how drugs affect your brain in this article: Is Addiction a Disease?
Here are some of the other risks that college students face:
Mental Health Disorders
Research shows that 36% of college students will have a diagnosable mental health disorder in their lifetime, up from just 22% in 2007. A recent national survey shows that 25% of young adults ages 18 to 24 struggle with mental health.
This is significant because there’s a strong correlation between mental health disorders and substance abuse. Roughly half of people who struggle with mental health will also struggle with substance abuse, and vice-versa. When academic stress leads to anxiety and depression, the risk of substance abuse also rises.
On many college campuses, social life revolves around drinking and recreational drug use. To fit in, students feel pressured to take part. But this isn’t the only peer pressure that students face. At the other end of the spectrum are universities where intense academic pressure drives students to use amphetamines and nootropics to gain a competitive edge.
Study drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin have driven a new wave of substance abuse problems at leading academic schools. Ultimately, these drugs cause an unavoidable crash in both physical and emotional health. We’ll look more at the damage of “study drugs” below, but it’s important to know that peer pressure can come in many forms.
Legal Drug Access
Finally, college students are also at risk for substance use disorders because many legal drugs, such as alcohol and nicotine, are now accessible at a time when students seek stress relief. These drugs may not derail graduation prospects or interfere with relationships in the short-term, but they can lead to problems in the future. This is true of drinking, vaping, and, increasingly, marijuana.
College Drug Use Statistics: Not Everyone Is Drinking
What does the drug use landscape look like on college campuses? In some ways, it’s changing for the better. Drinking on campuses has dropped significantly over the last 20 years, according to research by the University of Michigan and Texas State University, leading to a reduction in alcohol use disorders. But other substances are growing.
As attitudes toward marijuana have become more relaxed in many states, use among college students has risen. Vaping is also on the rise. Here’s a look at college drug use by the numbers:
- Although numbers are dropping, alcohol is still the most widely used drug among college students, with 55% in a national survey reporting having had at least one drink in the last month. [Source: NIH]
- For the first time in the NIH survey’s history, binge drinking among college students dropped below 30%. In the 2018 survey (the most recent available), just 28% of students reported engaging in the behavior. [Source: NIH]
- Marijuana is the most frequently used illegal drug among college students, with various studies showing 25-33% of students using it at least once. [Source: NCBI]
- About 6% of college students say they use marijuana regularly, compared to 11% of young adults not in college. [Source: DrugAbuse.gov]
- Of students who reported drug use, about 33% reported feelings of dependence and attempts to limit their intake. [Source: NCBI]
- Vaping more than doubled between 2017 and 2018, from 6% to 15.5%. [Source: NIH]
- Opioid abuse has fallen among college students, to just under 3% in 2018. [Source: DrugAbuse.gov]
- About 11% of college students abuse Adderall, compared to 8% of young adults who are not in college. [Source: DrugAbuse.gov]
The Study Drug Myth
Although most students understand the dangers of illicit drugs and alcohol, street drugs aren’t the only problem on college campuses. Under pressure to perform academically, students have increasingly turned to nootropics, or “study drugs,” which can feel safer because they often come with a prescription.
Designed to treat behavioral disorders like ADHD, medications like Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse have become widely available, with and without a prescription. As we have written before, these highly addictive substances offer short-term benefits with long-term damage. Here are three myths dispelled that every college student should know:
Myth: Study drugs help you concentrate.
Truth: Study drugs prevent creative thinking. By temporarily keeping your mind in a hyper-active state, they prevent the brain from entering the natural, slower-wave phases that are necessary for creativity, healing and growth. Ironically, this means study drugs prevent the kind of thinking you need for higher learning.
Myth: Study drugs aren’t addictive.
Truth: Nootropics like Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse are highly addictive, leading to intense withdrawal symptoms, which can last for weeks. Most people will go through an unpleasant “come down” period, followed by a longer period of emotional withdrawal that may require professional counseling.
Myth: Study drugs don’t impact your physical health.
Truth: Amphetamines have a significant health impact. They stress the heart, increase blood pressure, and can lead to stroke, seizures and problems with your liver and kidneys. People with undetected heart problems are at risk for fatal side effects.
Read More: The Surprising Truth About Study Drugs
Stress Management in College
For many college students, substance use starts with stress. Between deadlines, social pressures and managing life away from home, college life can be emotionally draining. In fact, nearly all students surveyed in the latest National College Health Association Assessment, or 87%, said they felt overwhelmed at least once in the last year. Nearly half said they regularly experienced “more than average stress.”
Effective stress management is therefore an important part of protecting your mental health, psychologists say. Here are 7 natural ways for college students to cope with stress, according to mental health experts:
1. Get Exercise
As little as 20 minutes per day can increase dopamine levels and reduce stress, experts say. Even better, it doesn’t need to be strenuous. A recent study shows that teens can reduce stress with moderate exercise, such as walking or doing household chores.
2. Get Outside
Spending time outside, regardless of your activity level, has an impact on your mental health. Fresh air, Vitamin D, and lowered cortisol levels that come from connecting with nature are just some of the benefits.
3. Get Social
The next time you feel guilty about having dinner or Zooming with friends rather than studying, consider this: socializing is an important and effective way to manage stress. Laughing, connecting and releasing stress with friends gives you a boost of dopamine and oxytocin, even if you’re connecting virtually.
4. Watch Your Caffeine
An essential part of many college students’ mornings, caffeine can actually lead to anxiety. Understanding how coffee and soda impact your mood can help you avoid habits that make you more anxious.
5. Get Enough Sleep
All-nighters might seem like a cornerstone of the college experience, but skimping on shut-eye is detrimental to your physical and emotional health. The American Psychological Association reports that even mild sleep deprivation can affect memory, health and mood.
6. Set Realistic Expectations
College is a time to explore interests and test your limits, but it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Work with your guidance counselor to give yourself a realistic and manageable schedule.
Volunteering on-campus or in your community can help you lower anxiety levels, form healthy relationships and decrease your stress, says the Mayo Clinic.
If you struggle with a mental health disorder, you may still need professional support to manage stress in a healthy way. Explore on-campus or online options available at your school’s wellness center. A mental health evaluation, for example, can identify any issues that require professional counseling or medication.
Free Mental Health Resources
In addition to your campus wellness center, there are many online mental health resources that can help you manage stress. Below are a few apps that are designed for college students and young adults, with free and affordable options for each:
Anxiety & Depression
Avoiding Drug Abuse at College
Between the pressures faced at college and a culture of substance use, the temptation to abuse drugs isn’t leaving college campuses anytime soon. To cope with these pressures, it’s important to have a plan. Here are healthy ways to stay safe as a college student:
Set limits. Think about your boundaries before you’re feeling overwhelmed or inebriated. This applies to not only to drinking, but also to activities that can cause stress. When you set limits, whether you’re capping the number of drinks you’ll have in a night or the number of social obligations in your weekly schedule, you’re helping yourself make decisions when you’re most clear-headed, rather than allowing yourself to get swept up in the moment.
Check in with yourself. Before you start to feel overwhelmed, ask yourself: how are you doing in class? How are your relationships? Are you sleeping enough? Eating well? When you take time to check in with your physical and mental health, you’re more likely to stop negative patterns before they cascade.
Use your campus resources. Many campuses have comprehensive mental health resources, including counselors and support groups that you can access both in-person or online. Most campuses also offer health insurance. Your campus counselors can also offer recommendations for additional support for mental health or substance use disorders if you need it.
Above all, avoiding drug and alcohol abuse starts with deciding ahead of time what you want from your college experience, and sticking to your boundaries. It also means giving yourself permission to slow down, lower your stress levels, and you reach out for help when you need it.
If you struggle with drugs or alcohol, we can help. Call us or start a conversation in the chat box below to ask a question or explore your options for treating substance abuse and co-occurring mental health issues.
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