Under Pressure: How School and Peers Can Lead Adolescents to Substance Use

Many students feel ruled by grades and the opinions of peers, which leads to an overwhelming feeling of pressure and can cause some to turn to substance use.

Pressure — it is something that everyone has felt. It is defined as both “the use of persuasion, influence, or intimidation to make someone do something” and “the feeling of stressful urgency caused by the necessity of doing or achieving something.” The pressures that are faced by students today are numerous and overwhelming, and they can have extremely negative consequences on the lives of young people. There are two specific pressures that I would like to address in this blog post. First, peer pressure, and second, the immense pressure to succeed academically. If left unchecked, pressure can turn into dependency in the blink of an eye. That’s why it is so important to be aware of pressure and the effects it can have and to actively guard your mental health.

Let’s talk peer pressure, or the influence from members of one’s peer group. Humans are, by nature, social creatures. It is natural to want to be around others and to want their approval. That’s why adolescents, teenagers and college students can be particularly vulnerable when it comes to the effects of peer pressure. Unfortunately, these effects can become magnified in party scenarios and can get out of hand quickly. In fact, 28% of teenagers felt that giving in to peer pressure has elevated their social status. Furthermore, 90% of teenagers report that they have experienced peer pressure at some point in their lives. These statistics demonstrate that peer pressure is a real threat, and that it could be potentially harmful in terms of addiction and substance abuse. There is no way of knowing ahead of time whether or not you will be addicted to a substance before trying it. That’s why it is very dangerous for a friend or acquaintance to encourage the use or consumption of substances that may be extremely harmful and or addictive.

School’s Impact on Stress Levels

An equally dangerous type of pressure facing students today is the pressure to succeed, particularly in academics. Our culture has fostered the idea that grades are everything. When applying to college, college programs, graduate schools, medical schools, etc., the perception is that grade point average is the single most important determining factor in whether or not you go to the school you want. This intense, focused pressure can often lead students to make questionable decisions.

One such decision is the use of Adderall and other “study drugs.” Adderall and other drugs like it are often prescribed for conditions like ADD, ADHD, and narcolepsy. In these instances, they can be extremely helpful. However, many students without these conditions have begun to use and abuse these drugs. Oftentimes, students will acquire these drugs from friends and use them to “crash study” for exams or “power through” long papers. In fact, I have witnessed people genuinely suggesting the use of Adderall as a solution to study stress. It can then become a slippery slope for continuing the use of the drug, because students may begin to believe that their academic performance is tied to their usage. In reality, this is untrue and a very dangerous mentality to have.

Avoiding the Pressure

Peer pressure and academic pressure are no joke, and they are two threats to mental health that students face almost daily. Let’s talk specific ways to protect yourself from these potentially harmful aspects of student life:

  • Be grounded in your inherent worth. You are not defined by a test grade. You are not defined by the opinions of a person or a group of people. You are not defined solely by your academic performance. You are not defined by your social calendar. When you separate your worth from these pressures, you are less likely to let pressure influence your decision making.
  • Honestly evaluate areas of your study/social life that require change or improvement. If you are cramming for a test and the weight of the pressure makes you feel like you need a substance to succeed, what do you need to change? Think about things like studying over time and avoiding cramming. Try focusing on truly learning the material as opposed to memorizing bits and pieces that you think might be on the exam. Maybe your whole attitude toward your education needs a reboot. In terms of your social life, are you truly surrounded by the people you want to be surrounded with? Does your tribe make you a better person? Or does your group make you feel like you have to compromise on your values to be accepted? Again, in both of these arenas, honesty and true self-reflection are critically important and will allow you to make adjustments as needed.
  • Be mindful of your story. We only get one life. Every day, you are writing the story of your life. There is gravity behind each decision you make. When you look back, do you want your story to be that you gave in to societal pressure and compromised your future and your values? Do you want to look back and wonder whether or not you really earned that grade because you abused study drugs? Even worse, do you want to realize that because you allowed pressure to influence you, you made a critical and life-altering mistake? I don’t think any one of us imagines any of these scenarios as part of our story. Pressure can lead us down negative paths if we do not actively challenge its presence in our lives.

Remember, dependencies on substances like drugs and alcohol can truly happen in the blink of an eye. Pressure can drive people to these substances, and there is no way of knowing how each person’s body will react to a given substance. It is so important to understand your worth, make honest evaluations of your life and be ever mindful of your story. If you can keep these things in the forefront of your mind, you will be able to withstand pressure and even become more grounded for having withstood it.


Lexico. “Pressure.” (n.d.). Accessed August 6, 2020.

Williams, Yolanda. “Peer Pressure: Statistics, Examples & Signs.” Study, (n.d.). Accessed August 6, 2020.

Rubin, C.M. “The Global Search for Education: On Success.” Education News, November 15, 2011. Accessed August 6, 2020.

Flannery, Mary Ellen. “The Epidemic of Anxiety Among Today’s Students.” neaToday, March 28, 2018. Accessed August 6, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer