Addiction in College Students

College is one of the most critical times in a person’s life. It’s a time to plan what they will do with their lives, but it is also the first time many college students are out on their own. It’s no secret that it is common for college students to drink. There is also greater access to other substances such as prescription drugs, opioids, and other drugs of abuse.

Understanding Addiction in General

Addiction, also known as substance use disorder, occurs when a person becomes so dependent on a substance or activity that they can no longer function properly without it. They become obsessed with this behavior and cannot stop, regardless of the negative impacts it has on their lives.

Some addictions, particularly drug addiction, change the brain’s chemical makeup. It can take months or even years to recover from extensive drug abuse. It’s essential to get help as soon as possible for a substance abuse problem to avoid long-term damage.

Substance Abuse Influences on College Students

For most people, college is the first time they are on their own, making their own decisions. As a result of being on their own for the first time, many people find themselves experimenting with drugs and alcohol for the first time.

While trying new things might seem innocent enough and even encouraged, experimenting with drugs and alcohol can have significant consequences, including addiction in college students.

Additionally, the depiction of college students getting drunk and doing drugs in movies and tv shows, along with stories from college alumni about their “wild college days,” can negatively influence young people’s impression of the college lifestyle. Young adults heading to college right out of high school might feel as if they are missing out if they don’t experiment with drugs and alcohol during their own college experience.

Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

While college might be the most exciting time of their life for the student, for the parents and loved ones, it might be the scariest and most stressful. Many parents have a tough time letting go and letting their child or children go out on their own, and other parents might be worried that they can’t do anything to protect their child.

If you are the parent or loved one of someone you may fear is abusing drugs or alcohol or even suffering from addiction, there are warning signs.

These warning signs include:

  • Skipping classes
  • Repeated disciplinary action
  • Declining performance academically
  • Changes in personal appearance
  • Dropping out
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • No longer participating in activities or events they once enjoyed
  • Avoiding people like friends and family
  • Lying about drinking or doing drugs
  • Noticeable mood changes such as depression, irritability, or anger
  • Showing evident signs of recovering from drinking or doing drugs, such as hangovers and having them often
  • Needing to drink or do drugs to have a good time
  • Suffering from withdrawal symptoms
  • Getting into legal trouble as a result of drinking or doing drugs
  • Acting in unsafe or overly risky ways while drunk or on drugs
  • Continuing to use and abuse drugs or alcohol despite the negative consequences

Addiction Trends in Young Adults

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines a college student as a person between 18 and 22 years old.

Below are some additional facts about just how prevalent substance abuse and addiction are amongst college students:

  • More than 50% of all full-time college students will have at least one drink of alcohol; more than 30% of college-age drinkers will have engaged in binge drinking (5+ drinks for a man, 4+ drinks for a woman within a few hours) within the past month
  • One in every four college students experiences some type of academic issue as a result of their use of alcohol
  • From 2004 to 2016, MDMA (also known as ecstasy) use among college students more than doubled
  • Around 9% of all full-time college students have met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, otherwise known as alcohol addiction
  • A 2021 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed that approximately 1,500 college students die due to unintentional alcohol-related injuries
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that nearly 10,000 college students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault, including rape
  • In 2016, one in every ten college students admitted to taking Adderall for non-medical use at least once in the past year
  • From 2006 to 2019, the number of college-aged people who used an illicit substance rose from 32% to 44%
  • In recent years, the most common illegal drugs appearing on college campuses include MDMA (ecstasy), hallucinogens (such as LSD), cocaine, and amphetamines; marijuana is also popular but is legal in some states

Illicit Drug Abuse vs. Prescription Drug Abuse

While media and entertainment focus attention on alcohol and alcohol-related issues among college students, drug abuse is another major cause of concern. Two of the most commonly abused drugs on college campuses are marijuana and prescription stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin.

A 2008 report by Monitoring the Future showed that 37% of all college students had tried an illicit drug at least once, and 19% had used an illegal substance that wasn’t marijuana. While 37% might seem like a high number, a much more worrying trend is the prevalence of prescription drug abuse on college campuses.

When it comes to stimulant use, 60% of all stimulants taken by college students are for non-medical use. Prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but some students use them as “study drugs” to enhance their focus.

In fact, some pharmacies near college campuses will run out of certain prescription stimulants around the time of college exams due to the high prevalence of those who abuse Adderall and similar drugs.

Common Causes of Substance Abuse in College

College can be a fun experience, but it can also be scary and stressful. Whether it’s their parents or themselves, college students are often under a lot of pressure to succeed. Knowing how they perform in college can play a significant factor in determining their success in life.

College students also have to deal with being fully in charge of themselves for the first time in their lives. All this stress and pressure can lead them down the path of drugs and alcohol as they seek ways to ease some of that stress.

Mental Illness

Mental illness in college students can be a common occurrence. With easy access to drugs and/or alcohol that might make them feel better for a short time, college students may drink their troubles away or turn to another substance of abuse.

While this form of self-medicating might seem like it is working in the short term, in the long run, it does more damage.

Those suffering from mental health issues are far more likely to develop substance abuse or addiction issues. Suffering from both a mental health condition and a substance abuse issue is known as a co-occurring disorder.

Stress

While college’s freedom can often be rewarding, it can also be stressful. The course load in higher education can be extensive, and there’s often a great deal of homework, projects, tests, etc. In some cases, students may also be working at a part-time or full-time job, adding additional stress to their lives.

Finances can be another potential source of stress for college students. Between tuition, school expenses, and the cost of living (such as housing and food), budgeting can add strain to a college student’s mental load.

It can be hard to cope with all the stress. Unfortunately, some individuals might decide to relieve some of these stressors by drinking or turning to illicit drug use.

Performance Enhancement

Another issue that many college students also find themselves facing is performance expectations. Some students have to maintain grades to remain in their program, while others have GPA requirements to keep their scholarships.

The need to perform and achieve certain grades can lead college students to look for ways to get ahead. Taking Adderall or other prescription stimulants can help them focus and possibly allow them to study for extended periods without needing as much sleep.

Peer Pressure

As if college students don’t already have enough going on between school and being out on their own, they also feel the pressure to fit in and make new friends.

An easy way to make friends is to join a fraternity or sorority. Another way is to tag along with their roommate to a party. However, there is a good chance there will be at least alcohol present at these social gatherings—and a lot of it. Sometimes, drugs will be present as well.

To feel like they fit in, some college students might feel pressured to drink or do drugs, even if they know that they shouldn’t, because the pressure to “feel like part of the group” is so extreme.

Other Influences

Sometimes the stresses of college and life have no influence whatsoever on a college student using drugs and alcohol. In some cases, these substances are just around, and people are curious about them.

Since college is often the first time a person is truly out of their own, they might be more inclined to experiment and try new things, such as drugs or alcohol. And it may even seem like “everyone else is doing it,” even though this is often not the case.

Negative Impacts of College Drug Abuse

Since the brains of college-aged students are still developing well into their early college years, they often don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions.

College students aren’t always capable of grasping the repercussions of their actions before doing something. As a result, they might not fully realize that while it might just be one drink, one smoke, or one pill, sometimes that’s all it takes to lead to a full-blown substance abuse problem.

Below are examples of how a substance abuse issue can negatively impact a college student.

Academic Performance

The stress associated with academic performance can potentially influence turning to drug or alcohol use. And academic performance is often one of the first things to suffer when someone is dealing with a drug or alcohol-related issue.

Excessive drug and alcohol use can cause damage to the brain on top of changing its chemical makeup. This brain damage can negatively affect a person’s short-term memory and the part of the brain that helps with executive function, which is critical when attending college.

Drugs and alcohol can also affect a person’s ability to do simple tasks like showing up for class. Students who constantly abuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to skip class, not study, oversleep, and not do the work needed to maintain a certain grade point average. A low GPA can lead to losing a scholarship or even being kicked out of school entirely.

Development of Addiction

By using and abusing drugs, college students increase the chances of developing an addiction.

In fact, according to a 2019 national survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), approximately 9% of college students met the criteria for alcohol addiction in that calendar year alone.

Developing an addiction can turn into a lifelong battle. Initially, someone addicted to drugs or alcohol will need to seek treatment. Afterward, they will need to attend some sort of recovery program—and for many individuals, the recovery journey will last the rest of their lives.

Legal Consequences

Another major factor that many college students don’t consider when drinking or doing drugs is the potential legal ramifications of their actions.

First of all, drinking alcohol in the United States is illegal unless the person is at least 21. Being caught drinking underage is considered a misdemeanor in many states and will often result in a hefty fine and even jail time for young adults. Drug use usually nets larger fines and more extensive punishment.

While drinking underage or doing drugs might seem pretty standard, it’s still illegal. Being caught with drugs or alcohol, especially on campus, can be a significant offense resulting in expulsion from a university.

Beyond just the legal ramifications of possessing these items, it’s also no secret that those under the influence of drugs or alcohol are far more likely to behave unsafely or not have the best judgment. While under the influence, people are far more likely to do something that could put them and others in harm’s way, such as drinking and driving, starting fights, or committing a crime such as vandalism or theft.

Mental Health

For those college students who already might be dealing with some mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or stress, drugs or alcohol might seem like an easy solution to help alleviate some of those problems. They might think that a drink or two can help take the edge off and help them forget about their problems for a little.

However, drugs and alcohol only provide a short-term solution and can worsen their mental health issues in the long run. Additionally, drinking or doing drugs could also be causing them to develop a substance abuse problem which can ultimately lead to co-occurring disorders.

Students taking medication for existing mental health disorders also put themselves at a greater risk for experiencing more dangerous health problems. Many behavioral health medications, such as benzodiazepines, should not be mixed with alcohol because they can lead to potential overdose and even death.

Physical Health

Drugs and alcohol can also damage a person’s physical health and well-being. In fact, multiple substances that college students commonly use can damage their health over time.

Some examples of health problems that can occur from drug and alcohol abuse include:

  • Marijuana: According to a study by the National Institute of Health (NIH), heavy marijuana use has been linked to a loss of IQ points.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol affects every major organ in the body in one way or another and is considered the third leading cause of preventable death in America by the NIH.
  • Cocaine: Cocaine use can cause significant damage to multiple major organs in the body, including the gastrointestinal tract. It can also lead to an increased risk of heart issues, including heart attack or stroke.

Risky Behavior

While under the influence, people don’t think as clearly or consider the consequences of their actions. As a result, they are far more likely to participate in risky or unsafe behaviors for themselves and others.

When a person drinks or does drugs and gets behind the wheel of a car, they are putting themselves and every other driver out on the road at risk.

People under the influence are also more likely to experience extreme mood swings. These mood swings can lead to an increased risk of violence, especially if they feel particularly upset or angry.

Relationship Consequences

When a person suffers from a drug or alcohol addiction, it affects their own lives but also negatively impacts the people that are closest to them. A drug or alcohol addiction can damage friends, spouses, relatives, and other loved ones.

Addiction can lead to indiscretions such as cheating, stealing, and potentially even physical and/or mental abuse. Addicts also tend to be secretive and often lie to their loved ones to continue their substance use, leading to trust issues and will often end relationships.

Getting Help for Drug or Alcohol Addiction

For those who may be suffering from addiction while in college, the good news is there are ways to get help. Treatment options are available for college-aged students to address their substance abuse and mental health struggles. In many cases, students might not even have to leave school to get their treatment.

Treatment Centers

There are multiple treatment programs available for college students looking for drug and alcohol addiction treatment. Most people think of addiction rehab as a live-in facility where they must check-in and complete treatment for 30-90 days without leaving the facility. However, addiction treatment is also available at an outpatient level.

Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient rehab is an excellent option for the most structured and extensive treatment experience. During inpatient treatment, the college student lives at the facility for treatment, which can last anywhere from 30 to 90 days or more.

Inpatient treatment provides around-the-clock medical care and various counseling and therapy sessions. Doctors and addiction specialists typically recommend inpatient rehab for more severe addiction cases.

Due to the nature of inpatient treatment, any college student who enters inpatient treatment will likely have to take some time off from school while they focus on getting their life back on track.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment is an excellent option for those unable to attend an inpatient program or individuals with a mild to moderate addiction.

Those entering outpatient treatment have access to the same therapy and counseling sessions offered by inpatient facilities. However, outpatient programs allow students to still live at home or on campus and come to the facility for their treatment.

A Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) will provide the highest level of addiction care in the outpatient treatment spectrum. Individuals attending a PHP will typically participate in 4 to 8 hours of individual and group counseling sessions multiple times a week. A PHP is very similar to the structure of inpatient rehab but without the requirement of an overnight stay.

Alternatively, an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides patients with individual and group therapy sessions several times each week. An IOP is the least-structured addiction treatment option and is also recommended for some individuals after they complete an inpatient program or a PHP.

Other Addiction Treatment Services

In addition to inpatient and outpatient treatment, college students suffering from addiction also have access to medical detox and mental health services.

Medical Detox Services

Before treatment can begin, it’s essential to go through detoxing from the substance. When the body no longer receives its consistent flow of alcohol or drugs, will often experience withdrawal symptoms.

Due to the nature of detoxing and its side effects, detoxing should be done under the care and supervision of trained healthcare professionals. Medical detox services occur at a medical facility, a dedicated detox center, or a treatment center offering medical detox.

Do NOT try to self-detox at home without seeking medical advice first. Detoxing can be very dangerous and potentially life-threatening.

Mental Health Services

Therapy and counseling services are a critical part of addiction treatment. Therapy sessions help recovering addicts identify the triggers and behaviors that lead to their addiction.

Addiction treatment therapies consist of both individual therapy and group therapy. While individual treatment allows for more in-depth counseling, group therapy provides a support system for those in attendance.

Looking for Addiction Treatment for a College Student?

While drug and alcohol use while in college might seem like a right of passage, it will do more harm than good in the long run. Many college students who experiment with drugs and alcohol find themselves developing substance abuse issues.

Whether you are suffering from addiction or you fear a family member or loved one, it’s not too late to get the help you need to live a happy, healthy, and sober life.

Call the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or visit their online program locator to find addiction treatment options in your area.

Addiction in College FAQs

What are college campuses doing to prevent drug abuse?

Many colleges and state universities are taking action to prevent drug abuse on their campuses. College-based programs such as Campus Drug Prevention help prevent drug misuse among college students.

What are the consequences of drug abuse in college?

In addition to academic struggles and all the consequences that are associated with that (loss of a scholarship, academic probation, etc.), getting caught with drugs and alcohol can lead to expulsion from the university and additional legal problems that can remain on a person’s record for years to come.

What is the most common addiction among college students?

Alcohol is the most common addiction on college campuses, followed by marijuana, opioids, and prescription stimulants.

Reviewed by:Chris Carberg

Addiction Guide Founder & Mental Health Advocate

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Chris Carberg is a visionary digital entrepreneur, the Founder of Addiction Guide, and a long-time recovering addict from prescription opioids, sedatives, and alcohol.  Over the past 15 years, Chris has worked as a tireless advocate for addicts and their loved ones, while becoming a sought-after digital entrepreneur. Chris is a storyteller and aims to share his story with others in the hopes of helping them achieve their own recovery.

Written by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

8 references
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  2. University Health Service. (2017, November 17). The student suspected of Substance Abuse/Addiction. University Health Service. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://www.rochester.edu/uhs/ucc/referring-a-student-to-ucc/the-student-suspected-of-substance-abuseaddiction/

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). College drinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/college-drinking

  4. Palmer, R. S., McMahon, T. J., Moreggi, D. I., Rounsaville, B. J., & Ball, S. A. (2012, January). College student drug use: Patterns, concerns, consequences, and interest in intervention. Journal of college student development. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3856915/

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, July 9). What are the long-term effects of cocaine use? National Institutes of Health. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-long-term-effects-cocaine-use

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

  7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, March 22). Cannabis (marijuana) Drugfacts. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/cannabis-marijuana

  8. Helpguide. (2022, February 8). Understanding addiction. HelpGuide.org. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.helpguide.org/harvard/how-addiction-hijacks-the-brain.htm

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