Substance abuse in college students is increasingly common but highly dangerous. Substance abuse permeates almost every aspect of the college experience. College students use drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons. Some young adults may use stimulant drugs to study, while others may overindulge in alcohol on the weekends. Student athletes may misuse steroids or prescription drugs to improve performance. Students involved in Greek life may be more prone to substance abuse as well. Regardless of why college-age adults use drugs or alcohol, the consequences of substance abuse can be grim.
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College Students and Drug Abuse
Both female and male college-age adults misuse prescription medications, illicit drugs and alcohol for various reasons, including to cope with stress, improve their focus, relieve pain or have fun. However, college substance abuse can negatively affect a person’s mental and physical health, by increasing their risk of:
- Impairing brain activity, potentially causing brain damage
- Experiencing a mental illness
- Developing an alcohol use disorder
- Developing a drug use disorder
Facts and Statistics on College Drug Abuse
According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), drug and alcohol use among college students is a problematic trend at universities across the country. Statistics measuring drug abuse in college students show that illicit and prescription drug use is on the rise among college-age individuals.
College Drug Use Statistics
Results from the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that college-age (ages 18–25) adults engaged in many different types of substance use in 2018. Among individuals in this age group:
- Nearly 1 in 5 young adults smoked cigarettes
- Almost 55% of young adults drank alcohol, and almost 35% of them binge drank regularly
- An estimated 5.5% of college-age people misused pain-relieving drugs
- Almost 1.9 million young adults misused opioids
- Approximately 39% of young adults used illicit drugs
- More than 6 million young adults met the criteria for a substance use disorder
What Drugs Are College Students Abusing?
According to recent data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the majority of college students who misuse drugs choose prescription drugs like Adderall, drink alcohol, use nicotine and ingest illicit substances like marijuana. Some students misuse multiple substances simultaneously and may mix prescription drugs and alcohol or smoke marijuana while drinking.
Cannabis, commonly called marijuana or weed, is one of the most widely-used drugs on college campuses across America. College students often smoke this drug or incorporate cannabis extracts into edibles, or baked goods and candy. Marijuana can produce a euphoric high, and different strains of the drug have psychoactive and hallucinogenic properties. Facts about marijuana use during college include:
- In 2018, almost 43% of college students used marijuana in the last year, an increase of 7% over the last five years
- Among college students aged 19–22, 5.9% used marijuana daily or near daily. That percentage almost doubled to 11.1% among young adults who were college-age but not attending college.
- Vaping marijuana has become increasingly popular as well. Between 2017 and 2018, past month marijuana vaping doubled from 5.2% to 10.9% of college students.
Although marijuana may not be as dangerous as some illicit drugs, occasional marijuana use (like smoking on April 20) can become problematic and can worsen a student’s anxiety. Continuous use of this drug can lead to addiction. To get help for a marijuana use disorder, call the toll-free and confidential marijuana hotline.
Cocaine is a popular party drug on many college campuses, but the risks associated with cocaine use are not worth its energizing effects. College students may choose to snort or inject the white powdered drug, or smoke crack cocaine, to have increased energy or to feel more productive. Cocaine on its own can be extremely dangerous, but it can be deadly if mixed with other drugs that are common on college campuses, like Adderall or marijuana.
According to 2018 data, statistics on cocaine use among college-age (ages 18–25) adults included:
- An estimated 616,000 young adults used cocaine for the first time
- Approximately 2 million young adults used cocaine and 87,000 used crack cocaine in the last year
- Almost 212,000 young adults who had a cocaine use disorder
Cocaine can damage a person’s physical and mental health and even affect their future employment. Given these long-lasting consequences, cocaine addiction treatment may be life-saving for someone who struggles with this disease.
To increase their ability to concentrate, college students frequently misuse prescription stimulants, most of which are amphetamine drugs. Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are often prescribed to manage hyperactivity disorders, severe depression and sleep disturbances. However, many students use these substances as study aids, which is illegal without a prescription and potentially harmful.
Because stimulant pills can temporarily promote wakefulness and boost a person’s ability to focus, stimulants are popular choices among college students. Using Adderall to study is an increasingly common phenomenon on college campuses, and all manner of stimulant drugs are used by students who want to want to study longer, faster or more intently than they normally do.
Stimulants that are frequently used as study aids include:
These and other stimulants are commonly misused among young adults (ages 18–25). In fact, in 2018, almost 2.2 million young adults misused stimulant drugs.
Stimulant use disorders involving study-aid drugs may require professional treatment. To learn more, call The Recovery Village amphetamine hotline to speak with someone who can help.
The drug MDMA, which is commonly called ecstasy or molly, is an illicit stimulant drug. Ecstasy tablets and pills are psychoactive drugs that activate a release of serotonin in the brain, which boosts feelings of happiness and excitement and can heighten a person’s emotional sensitivity. Although ecstasy is not seen as a dangerous club drug among college students, its use can lead to a substance use disorder.
To learn more about how college students use stimulants like ecstasy, read The Recovery Village’s resource pages regarding:
- Ecstasy addiction stories
- Mixing ecstasy and alcohol
- Signs of ecstasy use and addiction
- Ecstasy overdose
Representatives on The Recovery Village’s ecstasy hotline are available to answer questions about ecstasy use and rehab options.
Xanax is a popular type of benzodiazepine pill which may be prescribed to relieve symptoms of anxiety and panic disorders. Xanax works to create a sense of calm and sedation in the body, slowing down a person’s heart rate and breathing. College students may take Xanax to cope with overwhelming stress or anxiety, but this benzodiazepine is highly addictive, and continued use can lead to a Xanax use disorder.
College students and their loved ones can learn more about Xanax use and addiction through resources from The Recovery Village, including:
- How to tell if someone is using Xanax
- How Xanax affects the body
- Xanax and depression
- Mixing Xanax and alcohol
Additionally, to locate effective treatment programs for Xanax addiction, college students can call The Recovery Village’s Xanax hotline.
College Students and Alcohol Abuse
Drinking alcohol and getting drunk are almost synonymous with American college culture. However, excessive alcohol use in college can have serious consequences for the students who drink, and everyone around them.
Alcohol abuse facts associated with drinking in college include:
- Almost 1 in 4 students report academic repercussions from drinking, including missing classes and receiving poor grades
- Studies show that each year, 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related injuries
- Approximately 696,000 students are assaulted by a drunken peer each year
- An estimated 3.4 million college-age (ages 18–25) adults met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder in 2018. This figure represents 10% of all young adults.
Problematic alcohol use in college, like heavy drinking and binge drinking, can mean short-term ailments and long-term negative health effects, including the development of an alcohol use disorder, which may require professional treatment to heal from.
Many people, including college students, may misunderstand the difference between normal drinking behaviors and binge drinking. A straightforward binge drinking definition differs for women and men. For women, binge drinking means consuming four or more standard drinks within two hours. For men, having five or more drinks in two hours is considered binge drinking.
Among college-age adults, or people between the ages of 18 and 25, binge drinking is a common issue. Students may binge drink at parties, sporting events and on holidays like St. Patrick’s Day. However, this behavior can have immediate repercussions, like bodily injury from a car crash, and long-term consequences, like liver disease and alcohol addiction.
College Students and Mental Health
College can be a stressful and anxiety-inducing time for young adults, and sadly, mental health issues are common among students. In 2017, an estimated 8.8 million young adults ages 18–25 struggled with a mental health disorder. Some of these psychological conditions that college students struggle with include anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder and eating disorders.
The single most common mental health condition in America, anxiety disorders affect almost 40 million adults each year, including college students. On college campuses, between more than 60% of students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety anxiety as they face stressful classes and social pressures. This condition is characterized by mental and physical side effects like racing thoughts, panic attacks, difficulty sleeping and an inability to concentrate. However, anxiety can be managed at any age, and there are a variety of helpful resources to do so, including an anxiety crisis kit.
Major depressive disorder is an extremely common mental health condition in America, and depression contributes to numerous suicide deaths among celebrities each year. This condition affects more than 17 million adults each year. Among college-age adults, approximately 4.6 million adults struggled with a major depressive episode in 2018.
For people who face a major depressive episode, daily activities can be overwhelming. Changes in mood and behavior can impair their ability to study, work or maintain their regular responsibilities. Given the often stressful environment of college and the prevalence of major depressive disorder, it’s important for college students to be screened for depression and to be vigilant of depression symptoms in people they love.
According to research from 2016, eating disorders are responsible for the death of one person every 62 minutes in America. This figure accounts for eating disorders in college students, which can include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. These conditions are not only widespread, but are also commonly misunderstood and dismissed as not serious.
Eating disorders can be mentally and physically devastating, and college students should be aware of the signs and symptoms of common eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Although they are harmful diseases, eating disorders are highly treatable. Eating disorder treatment is offered at several locations of The Recovery Village, and representatives on the eating disorder hotline are available to answer questions and guide people toward effective rehab programs.
Preventing Substance Abuse in College
In preparing for college, few students plan for how they’ll handle drug or alcohol use, but this kind of planning may be necessary, given the rise of substance use disorders among college students.
Many universities aim to help young adults lower their risk of developing substance use disorders through substance abuse prevention programs for college students. These programs may focus on maintaining physical and mental health despite the challenges of college life, adopting healthy coping mechanisms, getting involved in campus activities and forming healthy friendships. Substance abuse prevention tactics for college students can include:
- Getting involved in on-campus events
- Joining a team sport
- Forming healthy friendships
- Befriending sober students
- Engage in activities that don’t involve substance use
Treatment Options for Students
If you struggle with a substance use disorder, there are a variety of drug and alcohol programs for college students, including comprehensive treatment programs offered through The Recovery Village.
However, before you enroll in treatment, speak with a counselor or medical professional to discuss your situation.
- Speak with campus health center physicians: Substance use disorders deserve medical attention. If you do not have a primary care physician, make an appointment.
- Take advantage of on-campus mental health counseling: Many colleges offer free counseling and psychological services for students. Given that counseling sessions at private practices can be expensive, it’s worthwhile to check if your university offers free or discounted therapy options.
- Talk with a trained counselor on a hotline: Most national drug abuse hotlines are toll-free, confidential and available during the day and night. Representatives on these hotlines can answer your questions about substance abuse and may be able to guide you toward affordable treatment options.
- Find local chapters of national support groups: Groups like Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous are open to anyone who wants to stop using drugs or alcohol. In these group meetings, participants offer advice and support to each other.
When you’re ready to begin treatment, you can find drug and alcohol programs for college students in several ways.
- Use the SAMHSA treatment services locator: With this interactive map, you can narrow down rehab facilities by city, programs offered and specific treatments available.
- Call The Recovery Village: If you struggle with addiction, professional treatment can empower you to maintain long-term healing. The Recovery Village offers a variety of drug and alcohol programs for college students and adults alike. Rehab programs range from medical detox to inpatient and outpatient care to help you overcome addiction. Additionally, individual and group therapy for co-occurring mental health conditions is included in each program at every facility across the country.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.”Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States:Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” August 2019. Accessed June 27, 2020.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” September 2018. Accessed June 27, 2020.
UC San Diego Health. “Brain Differences in College-aged Occasional Drug Users.” March 25, 2014. Accessed June 27, 2020.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drug and Alcohol Use in College-Age Adults in 2018.” September 13, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2020.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Facts & Statistics.” Accessed June 27, 2020.
American College Health Association. “National College Health Assessment II: Spring 2018
Reference Group Executive Summary.” 2018. Accessed June 27, 2020.
CollegeDrinkingPrevention.gov. “Consequences of Alcohol Use.” National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed June 27, 2020.
Albano, Anne Marie. “Most College Students Suffer From Anxiety, It’s Time to Talk About It.” Future of Personal Health, May 30, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2020.
National Institute of Mental Health. “Major Depression.” February 2019. Accessed June 27, 2020.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). “Eating Disorder Statistics.” Accessed June 27, 2020.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.