Stress: The Driving Force Behind Drug Use in College Students

College is meant to be a time for self-discovery and learning, but many students find themselves discovering and abusing substances instead.

Students in college are among the largest demographics of drug abusers in the country. This is truly heartbreaking. College is a time for self-improvement; it is quite literally the foundation upon which the rest of your life is built. Yet, more than a third of students engage in binge drinking and 1 in 5 use illicit drugs at least once per month. This would seem counterintuitive based on the ideals of higher education; however, this statistic is not out of line with what our culture suggests and normalizes about the college experience.

So, what exactly is causing such high rates of drug abuse among students? The factors suggested by research are stress, course load, curiosity and peer pressure. In this blog, I will explore and expand upon these reasons, detail what kinds of drugs are most popular on campuses and discuss the serious implications that drug use and abuse can have on the lives of young people.

The Impact of Stress

Stress is something that every person feels at some point in their life. College students are no exception. According to a study conducted by Harvard, 3 out of 4 college students reported experiencing at least one stressful event in the past year. Furthermore, over 20% of students reported experiencing six or more stressful events in the past year. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) suggests that freshmen in college are especially vulnerable to stress as a result of the incredibly difficult and emotionally taxing application process to get into college. They are also at an elevated risk as they might not yet have developed healthy coping methods to deal with stress when it arises.

In a study conducted by AIS, even higher numbers of stress were reported, with 8 in 10 students reporting that they experience frequent stress. Things like lack of sleep, homesickness, the pressure to create an entirely new peer group for oneself and an ever-intensifying course load all contribute to the stress that these students experience. Given all of that, it stands to reason that stress levels like these could potentially open the door to drug use and abuse. If students have not developed healthy coping methods, they may turn to drugs as a way to deal. This is exceedingly problematic and could potentially cause serious addictions that will undoubtedly leave a mark on the life of a young person.

Large Course Loads Invite the Use of “Study Drugs”

Another possible cause of drug use and abuse in college relates to the course load. Stimulant use among college students is higher than ever before. Drugs like Adderall are often used and abused for the purpose of studying harder for longer amounts of time or completing long, arduous assignments. “Study drugs” have grown in popularity dramatically over the past few years as students attempt to sleep less and study and socialize more.

The danger of using a substance like Adderall to study or complete a project is that you can eventually begin to feel as though your success is dependent on the substance. This is clearly not a healthy way to view any substance. Other stimulants are also used and abused on college campuses for purposes outside of studying longer. In fact, it is a popular myth among college students that using cocaine on a night out can fight off the depressant effects of alcohol and allow you to drink excessively for much longer than you would be able to normally. This is a myth because these substances actually end up competing against each other rather than working to cancel out the effects of the other. This is a dangerous combination and can lead to serious health complications.

A Time of Discovery (and Pressure)

Curiosity is also cited as a reason for drug use and abuse during college. As students begin to explore who they are, free from supervision, drug use is one of the things that they might choose to try. While this makes sense in theory, it seems to me that there are far less dangerous and harmful ways to explore one’s sense of self than using highly addictive substances that could potentially derail the course of a young person’s life. Another possible reason for the high rate of drug abuse on college campuses is peer pressure. When considering that young people must find or create an entirely new friend group upon entering college, they would be particularly vulnerable to the effects of peer pressure.

In terms of the types of drugs most frequently used on campuses, here are some fast facts. The most popular are stimulants like Adderall, marijuana and ecstasy. Stimulants are rarely obtained through legal prescriptions. On some campuses, marijuana is more widely abused than alcohol. College students are in the targeted age bracket for ecstasy, even though it originally reached the height of its popularity in the ‘90s.

When you combine all of these risk factors for drug use and abuse, the fact that college students are among the largest demographics of those who abuse drugs makes more sense. However, this is a narrative that we need to change. How can we as a society better equip students to handle the new challenges that college presents? How can we prevent substance abuse and all of the damage that it causes? I think part of it is preparation. So often, students are sent off to college with the phrase, “Get ready for the best four years of your life. Have fun!” While this is well-intentioned, it isn’t actually that helpful. Students need to be made aware that there are real threats to their mental health and to their futures, and that often, these threats can be disguised as fun or even disguised as success. Awareness and education are key to making sure that college really is the best four years, as opposed to years full of dangerous decisions, activities and, potentially, regret. For more information on drug abuse in college and how to prevent it, please check out the attached resources.


The American Institute of Stress. “Stress: An Epidemic Among College Students.” September 6, 2019. Accessed August 5, 2020.

Younghans, Johanna. “College Stress.” Harvard Medical School, September 10, 2018. Accessed August 5, 2020.

Lipari, Rachel; et al. “A DAY IN THE LIFE OF COLLEGE STUDENTS AG[…]SUBSTANCE USE FACTS.” SAMHSA, May 26, 2016. Accessed August 5, 2020.

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