Back in the mid-1980s, Michael Jackson was at his height, “The Breakfast Club” and “Back to the Future” were either yet to be released or just in the infant stages of becoming timeless classics, and social media was decades away.

That was the world when the youngest of senior citizens, those who are between 55 and 60 years old, were between the age of 18 and 22, which is typically the age when many young adults attend college for their undergraduate degree. Any seniors who are older attended college prior to the 1980s, when the world was even more different.

In short, Americans who are at least 55 years old experienced a much different college scene than current students, and the variances are not just reflected in the pop culture scene.

College students face more pressure now than ever before and at a much higher rate compared to 30 years ago, or even 20 or 10. The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA started polling incoming freshman in 1985 on their psychological state entering this new stage of life. The first survey revealed that 18 percent of new college students were overwhelmed by the new experience. By 2010, the number increased to 29 percent. In 2016, it was 41 percent.

How does this increased amount of stress affect how current and recent college students handle school work, finding a social group, romantic relationship problems and managing a budget or juggling a part-time job? Can performing this balancing act along with navigating social media, the internet, the age of smartphones and texting lead to more substance misuse? Are college students today more susceptible to addiction than college students in the 1980s and 1990s?

The Recovery Village surveyed 400 people on their experiences in college regarding drug and alcohol use, including the reasons they and their peers chose to use these substances. The results show a significant difference between the college experiences of today’s adults and senior citizens and that of 18- to 24-year-olds or 25- to 34-year-olds who are either in college now or are new to the postcollege life.

Comparing Two Eras and Their Reliance on Substance Use

Around half of the respondents said they tried an illegal drug, such as heroin or cocaine, or alcohol at least once during college. The largest percentage went to the 25-34 age demographic, which included 64 respondents and 60 percent of them saying they did take an illegal drug or drink alcohol at least one time. Less than half of survey respondents age 18-24 and age 55 and older said the same.

The most interesting statistics are not about whether substance use happened but why it happened.

When asked whether they used drugs or alcohol “to get through the day” in college, the differences in answers for each age group is staggering. Looking at all age groups, 65 percent said no, but that number fluctuates depending on how old respondents are.

Nearly 90 percent of respondents who are at least 55 years old said no. By comparison, around 56 percent of respondents between ages 18 and 24 said they did take substances to get through their daily routine in college. The age groups of respondents in between the two aforementioned groups stuck to the trend of “no” being the likelier answer the older the group was.

Respondents in the 18-24 age group also were the most likely to attribute stress to their own substance misuse, and that of others. Around 60 percent said stress was the reason others used drugs. Half of those in the 18-24 age group who took an illegal drug or alcohol at least once during college said they did so to alleviate stress.

Respondents age 55 and older were more likely than others to say peer pressure had nothing to do with their drug use. Around 60 percent said that was not an influence, while 66.67 percent of respondents ages 25-34 said peer pressure did play a major factor for them.

The Stress of Attending College in 2018

The types of drugs that college students use has changed, too. Prescription drugs to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — such as Adderall or Ritalin — are more popular for college kids who aren’t diagnosed with ADHD. They take these drugs to increase their ability to focus, decrease their need for sleep and grind through all-night study sessions and assignments. That misuse alone is one piece of evidence suggesting that college kids are more stressed in 2018 than students were in the 1980s and 1990s.

TIME published a study in 2011 that showed the difference in the mental health of incoming freshman. In the 1980s, around 70 percent of new college students said they were in the top 10 percent of mentally stable people in their class. In 2011, only 52 percent of freshman rate their mental well-being that high.

The New York Times explored the concept in an article titled “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Extreme Anxiety?” One explanation was that the life of a college student prevents any feeling of finality until graduation occurs. Even after a college student aces an exam or turns in a stellar research paper, there’s always the next semester.

Mental health is a growing problem for all Americans, not just college students. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety affects around 33 percent of adolescents and adults in the country. However, college life is so often linked to partying, which can include experimenting with drugs and alcohol, making it easy for stressed students to find potentially dangerous ways to relax. Could increased stress lead to dangerous levels of substance use?

How to Manage Stress

Stress can cause substance use and addiction. That’s not breaking news. However, acknowledging this connection reveals how important managing stress is for not just college students but for every American.

Dr. Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D. explained that some people who struggle with high amounts of stress will choose to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. The euphoric high or happiness felt due to these substances can make people forget about whatever worries or troubles they might have.

That upcoming exam? Alcohol can make you forget about that for a few hours.

The paper due in three days? Drugs can help remove it from your mind.

Graduating and having to look for a new job? Knowing that you’ll have to begin paying off student loans soon? Hanging out with friends and partying won’t delay those upcoming responsibilities, but it will delay worrying about them.

There are better, healthier ways to handle stress. Identifying the source of the stress can be extremely beneficial. If it’s schoolwork, then practicing better time management and balancing assignments and study sessions rather than cramming them could help reduce stress. If it’s social responsibilities or relationships, creating some distance by going home for the weekend could be refreshing.

Another tactic to manage stress in a healthy manner is making time for enjoyable activities, whether that’s listening to music or watching a favorite TV show. Physical exercise or outdoor activities also help reduce stress, as does simply laughing.

Whatever the solution, relying on drugs or alcohol to manage stress is not healthy. College has changed quite a lot in the last few decades, as has all of society and pop culture. Teenagers and young adults are some of the most susceptible to drug misuse for self-medication purposes, and acknowledging this fact while finding healthier alternatives could make for a more enjoyable college experience.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.