With the rise of the opioid crisis and other notable drug use trends, college students have more access to habit-forming substances today than they’ve had for a long time. Naturally, this accessibility creates a greater-than-average risk of students developing substance use disorders (SUD, or addiction) during their time at college.
Of course, other factors also make college students more susceptible to addiction than the average population. But what are these factors? And which drugs do college students abuse the most?
The College Student Demographic
Most people think of college students as young adults ranging from age 18 to 23, or the age range that most high school graduates would be during a standard four-year college career.
However, the college student demographic is constantly changing. While young adults aged 18 to 21 do make up a large portion of college students, this age group actually represents less than half (about 42 percent) of all students.
Older adults are entering college for the first time every day. In 2015 alone, 11.8 million college students were under 25 years old, while 8.1 million college students were 25 years old or older. The following year, college students enrolled in online degree programs were an average of 32 years old.
Drug and Alcohol Addiction Among College Students
“On an average day [in 2016], 2,179 full-time college students drank alcohol for the first time, and 1,326 used an illicit drug for the first time.”—The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA)
Although teenagers sometimes begin experimenting with certain substances in high school, most people use their time in college to engage in substance use.
This is most likely because the vast majority of college students live on or near their college campus, away from their parents and other familial authority figures.
But how many students abuse substances during their time in college? Which drugs are the most popular, and how often do they lead to SUD?
College Students and Alcohol Abuse
“[In] 2014… 1 in 3 [young adults aged 18 to 22 ] were binge drinkers.”—The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA)
Alcohol has been the most popular addictive substance among college students for decades. Unlike the other habit-forming substances highlighted in this article, alcohol is affordable, easily accessible, and legal— at least for anyone 21 or older.
Drinking alcohol has become a cultural and societal right of passage for college students, so much so that most people see it as an integral part of the overall “college experience.” It comes as no surprise, then, that binge drinking and alcoholism are significant problems on college campuses all over the country.
The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that roughly two-thirds of college students aged 18 to 22 engaged in binge drinking during the course of their college careers.
Another SAMHSA study from 2016 revealed that about 5.4 million full-time college students reported drinking alcohol over the month before the survey. Moreover, these students consumed an average of about four drinks per day on an average of six and a half days per month.
It’s important to note that these 5.4 million college students account for 60.1 percent of the overall demographic. Of these students, roughly 3.5 million (39 percent) admitted to binge drinking and another 1.2 million (13.2 percent) admitted to heavy alcohol use in the month preceding the survey.
Unfortunately, it is exceedingly easy to develop an addiction to alcohol. One study from 2008 found that roughly 20 percent of college students met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcoholism. Sadly, more recent studies like the ones outlined above show that the numbers have not improved by much in recent years.
College Students and Marijuana Abuse
As more states across the country legalize marijuana for its medicinal stress- and anxiety-relieving properties, more nonmedical smokers take advantage of the drug. This seems to be especially true for college students.
According to data collected by Monitoring the Future, 38.3 percent of full-time college students reported using marijuana at least once in 2017. In that same year, 21.3 percent of full-time college students reported using marijuana at least once in the 30 days before the survey.
The prevalence of marijuana use among college students is partially due to the widespread erroneous belief that marijuana is not harmful or addictive. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.
For instance, data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows that roughly one in every ten users is at risk of developing an addiction to marijuana. Research from JAMA Psychiatry even shows that 30.6 percent of marijuana users developed a marijuana use disorder in as recent as 2013.
Moreover, JAMA Psychiatry revealed that people who began using marijuana before the age of 18 are between four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder as compared to the general population.
Although trends of marijuana use have thankfully been on the decline in recent years, it is still a prominent problem on college campuses across the nation. In 2015 alone, more than 11 million young adults between 18 and 25 years old used marijuana.
Similar findings have indicated that, overall, marijuana is the second most popular drug among college students. The first is alcohol.
College Students and “Study Drug” Abuse
“Study drug” abuse is at an all-time high. Many college students are abusing prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin for their focus-inducing effects.
Moreover, the majority of college students who abuse these medications get them from a friend or classmate who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
One study of over 10,000 college students nationwide revealed that more than half of college students who carried an ADHD drug prescription were asked by friends and classmates to sell the medication. Another study showed that 61.7 percent of college students diagnosed with ADHD admitted to either sharing or selling their prescriptions to classmates.
Two other studies published by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry also found that 1) roughly 36 percent of ADHD prescription drug users enrolled in college believed that the drugs could help them to become “smarter” and 2) approximately 33 percent of the college students who use ADHD medications use them nonmedically.
College Students and Illicit Drug Abuse
According to SAMHSA, nearly 1 in 5 young adults aged 18 to 22 used illicit drugs regularly in 2014. Moreover, almost 2 million full-time college students— about 22.2 percent of the overall demographic— reported using illicit drugs in 2016.
In fact, SAMHSA has determined that an average day in college in the year 2016 consisted of:
- cocaine use (11,338 full-time and 3,629 part-time college students)
- hallucinogen use (9,808 full-time and 3,239 part-time college students)
- heroin use (4,570 full-time and 2,590 part-time college students)
- inhalant use (3,341 full-time and 991 part-time college students)
These rates, however, are heavily overshadowed by other non-illicit forms of drug abuse.
The same study revealed that 1.2 million full-time and 239,212 part-time college students abused alcohol on an average day in 2016. Another 703,759 full-time and 195,020 part-time college students abused marijuana.
Overall, various studies have found that the top three substances abused by college students are alcohol, marijuana, and focus-inducing prescription stimulants.
Contributing Factors for Addiction Among College Students
There are many reasons why someone may abuse addictive substances. For college students, these include peer pressure and self-medication.
Peer pressure is always going to be a significant factor in the development of a drug use habit or addiction. After all, humans are social creatures. The desire to “fit in” will always have some influence on thoughts, feelings, decisions, and actions.
This is especially true in an environment like a college campus. In fact, many students who end up using drugs or alcohol are introduced to these substances for the first time by their peers.
College life isn’t easy. It’s riddled with deadlines, expectations, and major life-altering decisions. Plus, students face more pressure during college than they ever have before, all while finding their footing as adults.
As a result, more and more college students are developing mental health issues like anxiety and depression. In many cases, these students turn to substance use to cope.
Mental Health Disorders Among College Students
According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University, anxiety and depression are the two most common mental health issues that college students struggle with today.
In fact, a survey from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 61 percent of college students reported feelings of anxiety to university counselors, while 49 percent of college students reported feelings of depression.
However, anxiety and depression are not the only mental health issues that college students are facing today. About 45 percent of college students who sought help from university counselors in 2017 reported high levels of stress.
The College Student Demographic and Co-Occurring Disorders (Dual Diagnosis)
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines dual diagnosis as “a term for when someone experiences a mental illness and a substance use disorder (SUD) simultaneously.”
It’s important to note that, in cases of dual diagnosis, SUD does not always develop first. In fact, many people who have SUD initially began using drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with a preexisting mental health condition.
This is why college students who experience stress, anxiety, or depression are more likely to develop SUD than the general population.
Increasing Demand for Drug and Alcohol Rehab for College Students
There is a high demand for college-centric rehab options. Although age-centric treatment options do exist, there are very few rehab programs that cater specifically to the recovery needs of college students who struggle with addiction or dual diagnosis.
Plus, many college students are hesitant to seek help because of the stigma attached to addiction and other mental health disorders. One study found that the social stigma surrounding addiction discouraged 37 percent of college students from seeking help for addiction in the year 2007. And, unfortunately, the numbers have not improved by very much even today.
Drug and Alcohol Treatment Options for College Students
Although college-centric treatment options are limited, various other rehab programs have a long history of effectiveness. These, of course, include the four primary levels of care in addiction treatment.
Generally speaking, anyone with a substance use disorder (SUD) or dual diagnosis should utilize the four primary levels of care, which are:
- Drug and alcohol detox
- Inpatient (residential) treatment
- Intensive outpatient treatment and partial hospitalization
- Outpatient treatment
Ideally, each of these programs should serve as a step in a larger, continuous treatment plan that addresses all sides (physical, mental, emotional, etc.) of an addiction.
Resources like Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) are also helpful both during and after the treatment process. Many rehab programs offer on-site A.A. and N.A. meetings. Alternatively, the two organizations host meetings in virtually every city in the U.S. each day.
Outcomes for College Students in Recovery
For more information about rehab and drug recovery options for college students, contact us here or call us at (833) 369-6443.
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