For Many, Going to College Means Drinking and Drug Abuse

For Many, Going to College Means Drinking and Drug Abuse

Going away to college is technically about getting an education, but in reality its biggest significance is in terms of independence. Where young people once lived under their parents’ roofs and adhered to the comparatively strict schedules of high school, college allows a taste of independence, more opportunities to socialize and the pressure of succeeding in a more self-driven study environment. As most people will be aware, the combination often leads to excessive drinking, experimentation with drugs and all manners of other risks being taken.

Understanding why this occurs is crucial if we’re to bring down the number of students abusing substances and consequently reduce the number of graduates heading out into the world with an unhealthy dependence weighing them down at every step.

Statistics on Drinking, Drug Abuse in College

The figures on drinking and drug abuse in colleges show that drinking in particular is very common on campuses. Seventy-six percent of college students surveyed as part of the Monitoring the Future survey in 2013 had consumed alcohol in the last year, and over a third (35 percent) reported binge drinking (having five or more drinks at once) in the two weeks prior to the survey. “Extreme” binge drinking was also present, with 13 percent of students having consumed 10 or more drinks on at least one occasion in the last two weeks and 5 percent having consumed more than 15. Overall, though, the rates of drinking among college students are decreasing, with 63 percent reporting drinking in the past month in 2013, compared to 69 percent in 2008.

Alcohol is only part of the issue, however, and marijuana use is especially common in the most recent data. The number of college students smoking marijuana every day or almost every day (defined as use on 20 or more days in the last month) was 2 percent between 1990 and 1994, but rose to 5 percent by 2013, hitting the highest rate observed since 1981. This increase in marijuana use is expected to be the primary reason for the overall increases in illicit drug use in the last year, which went from 34 percent in 2006 to 39 percent in 2013.

Adderall abuse is another major concern among college students. Adderall is a prescription stimulant used in the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but is also illicitly used as a “study drug” in colleges across the country, enabling students to stay awake for longer to study for exams or to complete homework with an imminent deadline. In 2013, 11 percent of college students had used this drug in the last year.

Why Do College Students Abuse Substances?

There are many reasons for widespread substance abuse in college, and much of it comes down to the transition into adulthood and the freedom from parental supervision that college life represents. Along with this more obvious reason, stress is often a factor, with students struggling to balance their social lives, their academic workloads and possibly part-time jobs. This stress can lead many to drink, use marijuana or even abuse drugs like Valium to help them relax—an eventually self-destructive coping mechanism.

Peer pressure is another factor. Drinking games are regular ice-breaking activities at parties, which usually involve drinking more alcohol in a shorter time than you ordinarily would, all while being encouraged by people you’re hoping to get along with. Additionally, the fact that college students often end up with more free time than they had in high school means that boredom can be a factor in college drinking and drug use. Simply put, some may drink or smoke pot to pass the time.

Finally, there is the pressure to succeed, which along with causing stress pushes many to use study drugs like Adderall to boost their performance. College is a lot of work, and the academic requirements can seem overwhelming to many students, even without financial concerns or a social life to further complicate things. Combined with the perception that many of their peers are using ADHD medication to help them study, the temptation to use can easily arise.

How We Can Help Students

Much of the substance abuse among college students, like in the general population, comes down to poor coping mechanisms for emotional issues and stress. While it isn’t the easiest solution to implement, helping reduce substance abuse in college means ensuring that students receive the support they need, including advice on planning and stress management tips. Other actions like cracking down on drinking in dorms form part of the overall strategy, but education on the risks of substance abuse and providing help with the pressures of college life are key. For those who develop a problem, counseling or rehab can give them the tools to overcome it, but it’s preferable to give them the tools before they need to use them. Experimentation may always be a factor, but we need to step in before it progresses into an addiction 

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