Help for College Students

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drug use in collegeThe 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is one of the most reliable sources of information about substance abuse in the US.[1] According to the 2013 NSDUH, 22.3 percent of full-time college students in the 18-22 age group were current illegal drug users (for study purposes, “current” means drug use in the month prior to the survey). Interestingly, college attendance itself does not seem to be a factor in this statistic. The study revealed that individuals in the 18-22 age group who are not full-time college students currently abused drugs with the same frequency as the full-time college student group. Twenty-three percent of part-time college students, other types of student, and non-students were current illicit drug users.[2]

The 2013 study found a higher rate of drug abuse among male students compared to female students. In the college student group aged 18-22, 26 percent were current drug users. In the same group of female students, the rate was 19.2 percent.[3]

The study also considered the impact of a college degree on drug abuse. Although the college student group had a similar rate of abuse compared to the non-college group (or non-full-time college group) while in college, after graduation the similarity did not hold up. Among college graduates, the frequency of illegal drug use was lower (6.7 percent) compared to the group who had some college training but had not earned a degree (10.8 percent), high school graduates who did not attend any college (9.9 percent), and high school dropouts (11.8 percent).[4] In short, the level of education one attains has an impact on the likelihood that he or she will abuse drugs.

While a host of different drugs circulate through college campuses around the nation, and each presents a unique risk, this article focuses on abuse of alcohol, marijuana, prescription stimulants and prescription pain relievers. Irrespective of the type of drug abused, it is important to know that substance abuse is treatable, and it is always most advisable to seek treatment as early as possible to minimize the damage illicit drug use can present to a college student’s health, well-being, and educational achievement.

Alcohol Abuse in College

In America, college life seems to be associated as much with drinking as learning. The party atmosphere may owe its existence, at least in part, to the fact that college is often the first time young adults are out from under their parents’ roof and are free to do as they like. Independence, in combination with youth, is often a recipe for going too far in an effort to have a good time. For college students, having a good time may too often involve alcohol use.

type of alcohol consumptionAccording to the 2013 NSDUH, full-time college students in the 18-22 age group had the following rates and type of alcohol consumption:

  • Current drinking: 59.4 percent
  • Binge drinking: 39 percent
  • Heavy drinking: 12. 7 percent[5]

College attendance is not predictive of alcohol abuse as much as being in the age group of 18-22. The 2013 survey found that individuals in this age group who were not full-time students drank to a similar extent, as 50.6 percent were current drinkers, 33.4 percent were binge drinkers, and 9.3 percent were heavy drinkers.[6]

As the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) discusses, the health hazards of college drinking aside, partying with alcohol causes the following types of collateral damage:

  • Injuries. A reported 599,000 college students in the 18-24 age group unintentionally injure themselves while intoxicated with
  • Fatalities. Each year, approximately 1,825 college students in the 18-24 age group pass away from an alcohol-related injury.
  • Sexual misconduct. Over 97,000 students in the 18-24 age group have been victims of an alcohol-related date rape or other sexual assault.
  • Poor health. Over 150,000 college students have developed a health problem related to alcohol intake.
  • Academic impairment. Approximately 25 percent of college students have reported that they have missed classes, performed poorly and received lower grades as a result of drinking.[7]

Although college is a time of awakening independence for many students, in reality, many are in a transition period from teenage years to adulthood, and they remain susceptible to negative influences. The vulnerable status of college students invites a question as to what role the college administration should play be in monitoring and responding to alcohol abuse among students.

Young Man Drinking BeerUSA Today reports on a 2014 study that concluded that colleges can and should do more to curtail student drinking.[8] The study is among the first of its kind and surveyed the campus and local security directors of 343 colleges across the US to learn how they handle alcohol-related incidents on and off campus. The research found that the college security response tended to involve referring students for discipline or sanctions to other school divisions. Seldom were citations given, and students were not usually referred for health or alcohol abuse counseling.[9] In other words, there was usually no coordinated effort to help student drinkers involved in incidents, or to sufficiently put them on notice of the danger of this behavior.

The study recommends that schools implement a system to draw together support and communications from different areas of campus. According to the study authors, the following measures can be taken (and some schools do so, at least in part) in response to an alcohol-related incident on or off campus:

  • Contact the administration.
  • Get in touch with the residence hall advisors.
  • Contact the parents.
  • Refer students to the campus health center for intake.
  • Determine at intake if a referral for alcohol treatment is needed.[10]

The study mentioned that one reason for a lax response from some campuses may be that drinking has become such a normative behavior, and because it’s so familiar, it does not garner the attention it really needs. Across the nation, reports of college student deaths related to pledging a fraternity abound, and they serve to draw attention to the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption on campus.

As The New York Times reports, on November 1, 2012, at the Northern Illinois University, a freshman student and pledge to Pi Kappa Alpha attended a fraternity initiation party and died after consuming 20 drinks in two hours.[11] In response, the authorities brought criminal charges (felony and misdemeanor hazing counts) against 22 fraternity members who were involved in the initiation party. The fraternity reportedly did not register the event with campus officials in order to keep it a secret.

Challenges to Phasing Out Hazing

Although New York State criminalized hazing over three decades ago in 1983, the practice continues. While Cornell University is an esteemed Ivy League school, its campus is not without student conduct that can turn into senseless tragedy. Despite a school anti-hazing law dating back to 1980, hazing practices occur in Greek Life, most often under the guise of pledging activities. In 2011, hazing crossed the line into involuntary manslaughter when a sophomore died as a result of being forced to drink until he passed out. Cornell is not alone in the hazing problem, but it provides insight into college life – that overdrinking and extreme intoxication have somehow become a test of a student’s mettle in some circles.

Source: 1 – New York Times, and 2- New York Times

Even the student’s death and the criminal charges against the fraternity participants may not send a strong enough message to counteract the firmly established college drinking culture.[12] Students may see the pledging tragedy as an exception and not learn to abstain from, or at least moderate, excessive drinking.

Marijuana Abuse

According to the 2013 NSDUH, marijuana was the most commonly used drug in 2013, with a total of 19.8 million users in the month prior to the survey.[13] Among individuals in the 18-25 age group, 19.1 percent used marijuana. Focusing on college students, gender was a factor in consumption. In fact, 23.6 percent of male college students aged 18-22 used marijuana prior to the survey, while 16.6 percent of female college students did so.[14]

As Michigan News of the University of Michigan reports, most of the increase in illicit drug use among college students is attributable to rising marijuana intake.[15] According to the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, conducted by University of Michigan scientists, over the last 34 years of the survey, marijuana has continually been the most widely used illicit drug among college students.

college marijuana useAs the MTF revealed, in 2006, a reported 30 percent of college students used marijuana in the previous 12 months whereas 36 percent said they had done so in 2013. An additional layer of alarm, according to the principal investigator on the MTF, is that one in every 20 college students uses marijuana on a daily or near-daily basis (this statistic breaks down further into one in every 11 males and one in every 34 females). To put this finding into a historical perspective, in 1990-1994, fewer than one in every 50 college students used marijuana with the frequency of use known today.

Research proves that marijuana can be harmful to academic and life achievement. As USA Today reports, a University of Maryland School of Public Health study released in 2013 focused on 1,200 college freshmen over a period of 10 years.[16] According to the study results, substance abuse – especially marijuana abuse – had the following negative impact on students’ lives:

  • Poorer academic achievement overall
  • More college dropouts
  • Higher likelihood of being unemployed post-college
  • Early, chronic use can lower IQ by as many as eight points[17]

The study authors found that on average, marijuana intake increases the likelihood that a student will face academic problems. Further, students may not be aware that under the Higher Education Act, students convicted of a drug charge, including a minor marijuana offense, lose their right to federal financial aid, including grants, loans and work-study. Approximately 200,000 students have lost federal financial aid under this provision.[18] In addition, the study authors are concerned that college students do not appreciate that marijuana has a ripple effect that extends beyond college – as the study found, marijuana users face an increased risk of unemployment compared to non-users.

Prescription Stimulant Abuse

The prevalence of prescription stimulant abuse among college students prompted an important scholarly review of this topic, published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases.[19] The stimulant prescriptions commonly abused include Ritalin, Concerta and Adderall. These drugs are prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are, however, being diverted to non-prescribed users and have a high potential for abuse.

These stimulants appear to attract students who want to improve their scholastic abilities, as they are rumored to help boost academic performance. Using drugs for the seemingly benign purpose of improving grades may mask a far more complex substance abuse problem.

All affected persons, including students, health workers, parents, pharmaceutical companies, and colleges, among others, should take note of the following findings from a host of research studies:

  • Students who abuse prescription stimulants usually have lower GPAs compared to non-users (i.e., typical consumers of these drugs are not good students trying to do even better).
  • The use of these drugs is usually part of a larger problem with substance abuse.
  • Improved academic performance is not the sole motivation of use; many college students use these drugs to have more fun when partying and to amplify the experience of other drugs consumed concurrently.[20]

In fact, the research authors found that taking stimulants does not substantially improve academic performance. Any perceived benefit is not worth the actual risks associated with abusing these drugs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires manufacturers of these drugs to include a “black box” warning that specifically states that these drugs can cause sudden death and serious cardiovascular problems.[21] In addition to educating the public on these risks, the research authors advocate that prevention and intervention measures be taken (by all affected parties, such as schools) to curtail prescription stimulant abuse on college campuses.

Prescription Painkiller Abuse

As the 2013 NSDUH revealed, in the age group of those 12 and older, there were 4.5 million illicit users of pain relievers. Prescription pain relievers ranked second (marijuana was first) in terms of having the largest number of Americans with past-year dependence (1.9 million). Yet only a fraction of the number of total illicit users of prescription painkillers received treatment (746,000).

Illegal Pharmaceutical Pills And Drugs Money On MirrorPrescription painkiller abuse is not only prevalent in the general population, but it is a growing problem on college campuses. These drugs are narcotic analgesics (pain relievers), and brand names include Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet. College students who abuse prescription painkillers face an increased risk of having three or more incidents of drug-related problems.[22] Further, this group is five times more likely to develop a substance abuse problem compared to those who do not abuse prescription painkillers. According to a 2009 government survey, 90 percent of college students who misused Adderall in the prior year (i.e., for a non-prescribed purpose) were five times more likely to have also abused prescription pain relievers.

A study conducted by the West Virginia University School of Public Health examined whether there is a connection between prescription drug abuse and depression among college students.[23] The researchers studied 26,600 randomly selected college students from 40 colleges around the country. The student participants were specifically asked to report on their prescription drug abuse (including painkillers, stimulants, antidepressants and sedatives) and mental health over the last year. The study found:

  • Approximately 13 percent of student participants had used a prescription drug for a non-medical purpose.
  • The students who reported feeling depressed, feeling hopeless, or having thoughts of suicide were significantly more likely to also state that they had abused a prescription drug.
  • Prescription drug abuse among college students (especially pain relievers such as Vicodin and OxyContin) was related to depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
  • It appears that at least some of the students who reported abuse of prescription drugs were trying to self-medicate psychological discomfort.[24]

College is a time to open up doors of opportunity, whereas drug abuse only limits potential. Whether college students abuse drugs unlawfully to cope with stress, on the mistaken belief that they will improve their academic performance, or because they want a better party experience, one thing is clear – students represent a vulnerable class of young adults, but treatment can help them to get back on track.

Drug Treatment for College Students

Early adulthood is usually the peak point in life when a drug problem begins.[25] However, national research results have found that compared to other age groups, young adults are the group least likely to seek treatment.[26] According to one study, only four percent of college students classified as having an alcohol use disorder obtained treatment. In fact, college students were less likely than their non-college-matriculated peers to seek treatment.

College students are very likely to be responsive to the same treatment methodologies, including detox and psychotherapy, as non-college students. The only difference for college students is that they may fear leaving school or making scheduling changes to accommodate an outpatient program. But smart and strategic planning can make attending rehab and maintaining a degree program possible. For instance, most colleges provide students with academic leaves upon request, and financial aid may resume upon return (students are best advised to speak with their financial aid office about the financial impact of taking leave).

Support GroupFurther, some colleges have set up special programs for students who have completed rehab, for freshman and returning students alike. According to an article in The New York Times on the topic of on-campus recovery assistance programs, Rutgers University began what is believed to be the first post-rehab residential life program for college students in 1988.[27]

As of January 2012, there were 31 Rutgers students living in recovery dorms that are drug-free and pro-recovery. Students in these recovery dorms are required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings at least two times a week, go to weekly meetings with an addiction therapist (in the first year of recovery), and participate in a monthly house meeting. Although Rutgers may have been in the vanguard of supporting student recovery, it is not alone; as of the writing of the Times article, more than 20 schools have a recovery program, including Texas Tech University, Case Western Reserve, and Augsburg College, and there are more in development.

These recovery support programs have proven instrumental to the participating student’s abstinence success and academic achievement. Recovering students at Rutgers, Texas Tech University, and Augsburg College appreciate an abstinence rate in the mid to upper 90s. At Rutgers and Texas Tech University, the average GPA is around 3.0 or somewhat higher.

Rehab can be compatible with college. Research shows that untreated substance abuse can undermine the goal of graduation. Putting off rehab may put an end to one’s college career, so it’s advisable to find lasting recovery with treatment and then go back to school.


[1]Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.”(2014). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed Nov. 21, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7]College Drinking.” (n.d.). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed Nov. 18, 2014.
[8] Swartz, J. (Jul. 21, 2014). “Colleges Can Be Doing More to Combat Drinking Culture, Study Says.” USA Today. Accessed Nov. 18, 2014.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Yacchino, S. (Dec. 19, 2012). “Arrests in a Freshman’s Drinking Death Reflect a Tougher Approach.” The New York Times. Accessed Nov. 18, 2014.
[12] Ibid.
[13] “Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.”
[14] Ibid.
[15] Wadley, J. & Carlier, C. (Sept. 8, 2014). “College Students’ Use of Marijuana on the Rise, Some Drugs Declining.” Michigan News. Accessed Nov. 18, 2014.
[16] Schick, D. (Jun. 7, 2013). “Study: Marijuana Use Increases Risk of Academic Problems.” USA Today. Accessed Nov. 18, 2014.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Arria, A. & DuPont, R. (Oct. 1, 2011). “Nonmedical Prescription Stimulant Use among College Students: Why We Need To Do Something and What We Need To Do.” Journal of Addictive Diseases. Accessed Nov. 18, 2014.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22]Taking Action to Prevent and Address Prescription Drug Abuse.” (n.d.). National Council on Patient Information and Education. Accessed Nov. 18, 2014.
[23]Pain Killer Abuse Linked to Depression, Suicide in College Students.” (n.d.). Social Work Today. Accessed Nov. 18, 2014.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Caldeira, K, et al. (Jun. 23, 2009). “College Students Rarely Seek Help Despite Serious Substance Use Problems.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Accessed Nov. 18, 2014.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Moore, A. (Jan. 20, 2012). “A Bridge to Recovery on Campus.” The New York Times. Accessed Nov. 18, 2014.


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