The Dangerous Normalization Of College Substance Use

Wake up. Attend class. Eat lunch. Attend more class. Cram for a final exam or make last-minute additions to an assignment. Attend more class. Eat dinner. Do homework. And do it all over again the next day, with the light at the end of the tunnel being the weekend and all the parties planned out that will be happening.

Rinse and repeat the next week. Maybe even sprinkle in a party during the week, on a school night. Because why not, right? That’s what college is all about.

Many people have that mentality when it comes to college life. For four years, maybe even longer, people shift from adolescence to adulthood. They shift from barely being able to legally drive a car into either being able to legally consume alcohol or doing it anyway based on a wink-wink and an unsaid “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement with supervisors. This period of life, shifting from teenage years into the early twenties, is all about doing adult things without having all of the adult consequences.

For many people, especially those who wish to remain sober or are in recovery from addiction, the culture of substance use among college campuses can be extremely dangerous.

The Recovery Village surveyed 400 people about college substance use, particularly among student athletes. The results show how prevalent drug and alcohol misuse is on college campuses, which substances are most popular among students, how often student athletes rely on prescription drugs to treat injuries and more.

The survey also asked participants what their thoughts were on why students, specifically student athletes, did not seek treatment for a potential substance use disorder. Nearly 40 percent of the respondents said the main reason was that people who regularly misused drugs or alcohol did not think they had an addiction. Around one-third of respondents said their reason was that they didn’t want their peers, and others, to learn of their struggle with substance use, and 26.5 percent said there was a fear of the negative stigma associated with addiction.

A lack of awareness of the prevalence of substance use disorders is one explanation for why so many believe their substance misuse wasn’t a bigger issue. However, attending college is often associated to drinking and using drugs. Could it be simply that most people think that severe substance use is just part of the culture of college life?

Culture Crisis

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 1 in 6 people ages 18 to 25 suffer from a substance use disorder. SAMHSA also published an information and resource kit regarding behavioral health among college students. With a wealth of knowledge regarding alcohol and drug use, mental health concerns and more, the guide provides specific information on why college students so often drink alcohol, even when they are under the age of 21, and why they use illicit drugs.

The information kit explains that college substance misuse is spearheaded mostly by the social environment, which includes fraternities and sororities as well as athletes or members of certain clubs.

“Students’ use of marijuana, the most common illicit drug, is also boosted by a recreational mindset that views use of the drug as a rite of passage,” the source states. “Much of college students’ use of other illicit drugs, mostly misuse of medications, appears to be related largely to the pressures of college life.”

Culture. There’s that word again. When something is part of the culture, it’s easy to flippantly disregard any existence of a problem. Slavery was part of the culture of the United States for centuries. Women being lesser than men in familial standing and importance, voting rights, and professional opportunities was part of the country’s culture for even longer. Now most people would agree that these institutions are morally corrupt and incorrect.

So even though extreme substance use is part of the culture of college, that does not mean society should so easily disregard it as a potential issue, possibly one that could destroy lives and families.

Lauren Groskaufmanis wrote in the Duke Chronicle, about the prevalence of dangerous drinking on college campuses throughout the country. She, an EMT of a college town, had numerous experiences of parties turning into life-threatening situations due to extreme substance use.

“My experience working as an EMT in a college town made me seriously question the acceptance and flippancy with which society treats binge drinking on college campuses,” she said.

Groskaufmanis continued that, “I strongly believe that a normalization of binge drinking on campus poses a significant health risk to students, one that is commonly trivialized by our peers and society.”

Normalization. That word seems to fit perfectly with the mentality on college campuses. There is a normalized view of wild substance misuse. Movies like “Animal House” make college parties look like the objective image of what college life should be. Songs have detailed college life as involving one alcohol- and drug-infused social activity after another. With this mentality, drinking and exploring drugs such as marijuana or cocaine is just “normal” for American teenagers.

The Path to Normalization

Why did alcohol and drug use become such a prominent feature of college life?

“It’s kind of ironic for a country that had once banned alcohol to now have it be part of everything we do,” Greg Rocheleau, a doctoral student in the Bowling Green sociology department, as cited saying on an article for the college’s Falcon Media’s website. “If you think about it, we have alcohol at all different kinds of celebrations.”

If there’s one thing college students do a lot, it’s celebrate. Not for any reason in particular, either. College-age students are old enough to no longer be under the thumb of their parents, but many of them do not have to maintain full-time jobs and completely support themselves financially.

College students are mature enough to want to be adults — to want to do adult things such as drink alcohol — but in many cases they are not mature enough to engage in substance use in a responsible way. A 2002 essay titled “The Student Perspective on College Drinking” was published on the website A student in attendance at a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism meeting said, “What we need to focus on is decision-making skills and maturity and responsibility in behavior when dealing with alcohol.”

Alcohol is not the only substance that is normalized on college campuses. Adderall, which is used to treat for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is also quite popular when students attempt long study sessions or want to finish assignments. The Badger Herald, the student-run publication for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, quoted sophomore Lauren Van Hoof on the prevalence of stimulant use on campus. Van Hoof, who has a prescription for Adderall, relies on the drug to help her focus on schoolwork.

“When midterms and finals come around, Van Hoof said she sees an uptick in the amount of students asking her to illegally sell them her ADHD medication,” the article reads.

What Some Campuses Are Doing

According to a 2017 article in the Chicago Tribune, some schools have started “collegiate recovery programs” to help students who have a history of addiction or those who develop a substance use disorder during their college tenure. Transforming Youth Recovery, a non-profit program, has been leading the way in providing colleges grants to begin these sobriety-based initiatives. According to the group’s website, there were 162 colleges with collegiate recovery programs as of 2017.

These programs include mental health counseling, along with group meetings so that students can find peers who are struggling with similar issues. One-on-one support sessions and substance-free events and activities also are included, allowing teenagers and young adults who are in college the opportunity to enjoy the social aspects of college in a more supportive setting.

Some colleges have created on-campus housing situations for students who wish to live in an environment where alcohol is banned.

If you are in college or about to begin your freshman year and want to know if your college has a recovery program, contact the school administration. If the school does not have one, you can follow the advice of the website, which lists the following options of people to contact or on-campus places to go when seeking to begin a program:

  • President’s office
  • Dean of Students offices
  • On-campus counseling and psychiatry offices
  • Health and wellness groups
  • Residential life leaders
  • The Dean’s office
  • Student Government

Do not be afraid to seek a sober life while in college. Living without drugs or alcohol while in college is possible, despite the culture that currently exists on most campuses. You are not alone, and there are likely many more at your school who desire a similar substance-free lifestyle.

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