The college years.
Many eager, young people look forward to this time in anticipation of the beginning of their adult lives. And many adults look back on this time fondly (forgetting the late nights studying for exams) and remember the good times had with the friends they made there.
But, there is something looming over college students that many people are unaware of. It darkens these usually joyous times, and can even claim lives.
Drug and alcohol addiction.
Addiction is not usually the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think about college students, but a college campus is actually an environment that lends itself toward substance abuse and addiction.
Why is that?
Let’s think about it. College is a time when many young people are out on their own for the first time in their lives. They are excited for freedom and ready to try new things.
There are tens of thousands of young adults all living close to one another, so social life becomes extremely important to college students. Peer pressure plagues students everywhere they turn. Drugs and alcohol are a part of the social scene, and students feel pressured to partake to maintain their social reputation.
What starts out as exploration in moderation becomes a full-blown addiction. And this addiction doesn’t end with graduation day. It follows students into their adult life as they enter the “real world.”
Alcohol and drug addiction in college is an epidemic that needs to be addressed because of the short-term and long-term effects it has on the affected people and those around them.
Keep reading to learn more about:
- Alcoholism on college campuses
- Binge drinking and its hidden effects
- Brain damage from blackouts
- Access to drugs in college
- Effects of drug use in college years
- Drug abuse for academic performance
- How some colleges are addressing this issue
Alcohol Abuse and Addiction in College
When people think of college in the United States, drinking is one of the first things that come to mind. The media portrays American colleges as huge fraternity and sorority house parties with students drinking from red cups, playing drinking games, and making bad decisions.
It’s just what happens in college — so many students think.
What they don’t understand is the difference between drinking in moderation and controlling their use with addiction and alcoholism.
So many students perceive their drinking as just part of their social lives in college for one reason or another. Since they are a college student they aren’t an alcoholic, they are just in college.
This could not be farther from the truth.
Someone’s age or the setting they are in does not change the fact that they are an alcoholic. Alcoholism is defined as the “mental illness and compulsive behavior resulting from alcohol dependence.”
No matter who it is or where they are, if someone is addicted to alcohol, they are an alcoholic.
And the college setting does not make it easy to stay sober. Most college towns are designed for drinking. Bars and drinking nightlife flock to college towns because they know there are thousands of young adults eager to start drinking and partying. This makes the life of a recovering alcoholic very difficult.
One student describes her struggle with addiction and sobriety in college:
“I don’t want to have a glass of wine, I want the whole bottle. It’s so hard to tell another person what that’s like.”
For those students who do realize their alcohol addiction in college, it can feel like they are fighting a losing battle. Most of their peers don’t understand their struggle, and they are unsympathetic to the lifestyle of a sober college student.
But, what we see more often is students who are unaware of the damage they are doing to their minds and overall health through their drunken nights out.
Health Complications From College Drinking
Researchers and scientists have been studying the effects of drinking on college campuses because they are starting to realize the correlation between alcohol use and health problems in college students.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) recently conducted a few studies on the problematic alcohol use among college students. Alcohol abuse is the fifth leading risk factor of premature death across the globe, so scientists are working hard to find ways to study and understand this epidemic.
Since college campuses are such a hotspot for alcohol use, these researchers decided to assess the factors involved with alcohol consumption among college students.
Among other things, they linked alcohol abuse on college campuses with:
- increased depressive symptoms accompanied by drinking to cope
- attempted suicide and self-harm behaviors
- aggressive behaviors
- students’ engagement in risky sexual behavior
- poorer executive functions
- poor academic achievement
- lifetime use of any substance
These negative health effects of alcohol misuse on college campuses are all serious and preventable. With so many students suffering from these symptoms, something must be done.
According to the NBCI study, “approximately 1 from 10 students had problematic alcohol use and 4.6% of students were in high-level problematic alcohol use, which was indicative for alcohol dependence.”
Due to these high numbers, the researchers recommended that universities should develop preventative interventions focusing on the behaviors associated with alcohol misuse and create legislative control toward alcohol use on campus.
If this issue continues to go unaddressed by university staff, then these numbers will continue to rise and students will continue to suffer on campus. And if alcohol dependence is formed in college, it will follow the affected students for the rest of their lives.
Binge Drinking: More Than Just a Fun Night Out
One reason many college students do not believe they have an alcohol problem is that they only drink once or twice a week.
While this seems infrequent, the next question to ask is how much are they drinking once or twice a week.
Binge drinking is the consumption of an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time. Researchers define binge drinking as five or more drinks for a male and four or more drinks for a female.
Although binge drinking may be excessive alcohol consumption for just one night, it can have serious long-term side effects that can impact students across all areas of their lives. The NBCI linked binge drinking to negatively affecting these areas for students’ lives:
One of the main issues with binge drinking is the decisions people make while they are severely under the influence of alcohol. College students are especially susceptible to making bad decisions because they are less familiar with their limits and the effects of alcohol.
Binge drinking is linked to serious sexual offenses. Researchers found that college students who binge drank in the previous year were more than twice as likely to be taken advantage of sexually or have unplanned sex, and they were four times as likely to be physically injured.
Many students who partake in binge drinking will find themselves in legal trouble due to the decisions they make while drunk. Some common legal issues related to binge drinking are driving under the influence, or partaking in illegal activities such as violently attacking someone or sexual assault.
Emotional and Social Effects
College binge drinkers also scored higher on measures of depression and anxiety in studies, which affects emotional health and inhibits a healthy social life. Researchers also found that
young people who binge drink typically are not developing useful interpersonal skills.
According to research done at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo, California, “a night of heavy drinking can impair one’s ability to think abstractly for up to 30 days.”
Binge drinking inhibits the exact type of thinking college students need to thrive academically, and just one night can affect the brain for up to 30 days.
There has been a lot of research linking binge drinking to poor cognitive ability. According to the NBCI, “several studies reported that the consumption of alcohol at binge levels was associated with poor performance on cognitive tasks, such as recall, spatial recognition, search, and planning tasks.”
Other studies show that binge drinking can actually cause brain shrinkage in college-age adults, which is one of the most common signs of brain damage. Binge drinking leads to decreased responses in the brain to stimuli because it affects the parts of the brain that are responsible for comprehension and reaction.
Research also shows that binge drinking below 21 years old results to slow neurological maturation. Since brains are continually developing until age 25, people below this age are very susceptible to the toxic effects of alcohol.
Binge drinking can affect the brain of young adults in ways that will do irreversible damage and it will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Binge Drinking Blackouts
Ever heard a college student say, “Last night was crazy. I don’t even remember what happened”?
This is because they experienced a blackout, and it is part of the cognitive side effects of binge drinking. Blackouts are defined as when a person is “temporarily unable to form new long-term memories while relatively maintaining other skills such as talking or even driving” after binge drinking. In other words, they can continue functioning at the moment but have no long-term recollection of what happened while they were drunk.
Blackouts happen because of a disruption in the activity of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain associated with memory formation. These are extremely dangerous in the short term and can have long-term adverse health effects as well.
If someone is experiencing a blackout, they are rapidly forgetting everything that is happening in the moment, and their brain function is being compromised, which leads to poor judgment, risky-decision making, and overall confusion.
For the moment, that means the person experiencing a blackout could perform potentially dangerous actions that could harm him or her or others. And for the long-term, scientists have found that blackouts can actually alter the structure of the hippocampus on a cellular level.
With about 50% of college students who drink reporting that they experience an alcohol-induced blackout, something needs to be done.
Not only is this leading to poor academic performance in college, but it can do permanent damage to the brain since college-age students are still developing. Staying sober and practicing safe drinking needs to be a priority on college campuses.
Drug Abuse and Addiction in College
Many people are not surprised by frequent and excessive drinking in college, but what people may be unaware of is that alcohol is not the only substance being abused on college campuses.
Drug abuse and addiction is a major problem for college students, and scientists are now beginning to research and understand the reasons why drug use is occurring in college, what side effects are associated with it, and what we can do to stop this.
After conducting a study, the NCBI labeled the college environment as a high-risk environment for drug abuse. They found that there is greater opportunity to use as well as the actual use of all drugs during the college years in comparison with the post-college years.
In order to gather more data, researchers followed college students during their enrollment period and for about three years after. They found that the peak opportunity to use happened during the earlier years of the study when the majority of participants were still enrolled in college. The conclusion of this study stated that:
“Colleges and universities have an important role to play in adopting environmental strategies that limit opportunity and availability, as well as individual strategies that change students’ perceptions about such drugs (e.g., perceived risks, benefits, and norms) and build refusal skills.”
Experts are calling on universities to address the drug abuse issues on campus due to the fact that drugs are more readily available on college campuses and students are more susceptible to use.
Drug Abuse for Academic Performance Enhancement
There is another reason besides availability that makes college campuses prone to drug abuse. Some students turn to prescription drugs to give them a boost with their studying and attention focus.
Adderall is what they call a “study drug” on college campuses, and a study conducted at the University of Kentucky showed that 30% of students at the university had illegally used a stimulant, like the drugs used for people with ADHD– Adderall or Ritalin.
But these students do not have ADHD. They abuse these drugs to be able to stay awake, focus, and study for big exams or write big papers.
Due to a large number of students who actually do have ADHD and are prescribed these Adderall or Ritalin pills, the drugs are easily accessible on college campuses for all students. Pills are sold by students who have a prescription or sold to a dealer who then sells to others.
Students take these drugs that are prescription drugs for ADHD so often that it seems as if they don’t recognize it as drug abuse.
The news station CNN talked with a student at Auburn University about his experience with using Adderall. He said:
“It’s easy — not sketchy or perceived in a bad way,” he says. “Maybe a simple text or a phone call. ‘Hey mind if I get some Adderall? I’ve got a long night ahead of me.'”
The way this abuse is perceived by college students is dangerous because they fail to see the consequences that come with drug abuse, even if it’s only used for “academic” purposes.
What many students are unaware of is the fact that Adderall is a schedule II drug and can be habit-forming. Psychologists report that Adderall can produce jitters, headaches, stomach problems or even eventually lead to psychosis, a mental disorder that includes the loss of contact with reality.
There are serious side-effects to this drug abuse that students need to be informed of, and college staff needs to be aware of this issue to help combat it.
Negative Effects of Drug Abuse in College and Need for Intervention
One of the major issues with drug abuse in college is that students are unaware of the long term effects, or are under the impression that the effects will not impact their lives in a permanent way.
In 2016, 4,110 young people under the age of 25 died due to opioid misuse. That is almost double the number of people in that age range who died from opioid overdoses in 2006. This is not an issue to be taken lightly — it is a matter of life and death.
Side effects will look different for each drug depending on its strength. Similar to alcohol abuse, drug abuse also leads to poor judgment, blackouts, risk of dependency, and brain damage. It can also lead to a lack of interest in activities and poor academic performance in college students.
In a recent study, 63% of college students who used an illicit drug in the past year reported experiencing at least one negative consequence from their drug use. Students reported a wide range of negative side effects from drug use, and 17-19% of all participants reported experiencing consequences suggestive of more significant problems such as taking drugs in larger amounts over longer period, failing to fulfill role functions, and losing interest in activities.
Students also showed this high level of concern about their drug use and they showed interested in some sort of intervention. This led the researchers to support a recommendation for the development of further assessment, prevention, and intervention to drug use on campus.
One of the really troubling conclusions from the study showed that many drug abuse issues on campus are going undetected by students, meaning that the students who are using the illicit drugs don’t even recognize their behavior as drug abuse.
Like we saw with the story of the student misusing Adderall, students don’t realize that they are indeed using drugs and that there can be long term consequences to this abuse.
College campuses need to wake up to this issue on campus. The drug abuse habits that students form in college will most likely stick with them for the rest of their lives, and they need to be educated on exactly what is substance abuse and how they can stay sober during these crucial years.
What Can Be Done? Staying Sober and Preventing Drug Abuse on Campus
So now we are left with the question: How do we address this issue and how can we help those students who are suffering?
Some colleges, like Rutgers University, are attempting to do something about it through their program called Rutgers Recovery House.
This university is one of about 200 colleges that currently have programs like this. This on-campus recovery house is a year-round dorm where students recovering from alcohol and drug addiction can live together and build a community to support each other in their recovery journey. The recovery house usually follows some sort of 12-step program for students as well as “sober social” events and awareness-raising activities on campus.
These programs are steps in the right direction towards giving drug abuse on college campuses the serious attention it deserves. In the past drug use by college students was portrayed as a joke or at least something that didn’t matter in the long run. But now, with the opioid crisis at large, this is a serious issue that is claiming the lives of too many young people.
And student recovery house programs have proven to be successful. Students in these programs show higher grade point averages than the rest of their classmates and they are more likely to graduate. There is also only an 8 percent chance of relapse overall from participants.
Despite the success of college recovery programs, only about 5 percent of colleges offer them. Many college leaders are either in denial that drug addiction is an issue on their campus, or they do not want bad publicity for the university by bringing awareness to the issue of drug abuse.
Advocates for these programs say it is mainly due to money and stigma that colleges are unwilling to implement a recovery program on campus.
But these are exactly the type of prevention programs that colleges should be offering their students. According to all the research we have seen, drug and alcohol abuse is high on college campuses and it is affecting students negatively.
This is an issue we can no longer ignore, and instead, we need to focus on what can be done to help the young people who continue to suffer from drug and alcohol addiction on campus.
The Call to Action: Bringing Awareness and Taking a Stand
It now should be very obvious that drug and alcohol addiction on college campuses is a serious issue. Substance abuse is negatively affecting students physically, emotionally, socially, and cognitively. It increases the risk of crime and injury to the students affected and those around them.
And the reason why something must be done on college campuses specifically is due to the high availability of drugs and alcohol in or around college campuses. College students are young and still mentally developing, so they are even more vulnerable to long term brain damage from substance abuse.
Not to mention it impedes cognitive behavior, which means that studying and recalling information becomes much harder after the drug or alcohol use.
This is why it would be in the best interest of colleges to begin implementing more tools and resources for their students to get help for drug and alcohol addiction. Whether it be a recovery house, counseling sessions, raising awareness, or education on the effects of addiction — something must be done.
This is an issue we can no longer ignore. College students deserve the right to healthy, sober college years and they need to form habits that will help them succeed in the future.