It’s no secret that substance abuse is a problem on American college campuses. In fact, each year, publications such as Princeton Review and Best Colleges post annual lists highlighting the “top party schools.” Fraternity/sorority and house parties and near-campus bars with dirt-cheap drink specials accompany the typical college experience. What many young adults don’t realize, however, is that habitual substance use can lead to substance abuse disorders or a full-blown addiction, in a relatively short period of time. In some cases, depending on the substance in question, it can happen almost immediately.
The question is, if partying has been the stereotypical college experience for the past several decades, why have addictions and mental health disorders sharply increased over the last couple of years? Here, we’ll explore the unique dynamics of today’s university/college experience and what students need to know about substance abuse and mental health.
College Stressors: What Makes Them Unique?
The successful completion of all the coursework required to earn a degree has always been challenging for students. These days, though, there is a lot more riding on passing final exams than the acquisition of a degree. In 2009, the average college loan debt, according to U.S. News was slightly more than $20,000. Today, that cost has risen sharply to surpass the $30,000 mark—and that’s just the average.
Young adults are already stressed about classes, living on their own, new relationships, etc. So, it’s no wonder there are collective signs of mental health issues and an increasing reliance on alcohol and drugs, among them. Too often, students who turn to drugs or alcohol to unwind or escape from pressing problems like roommate disagreements, homesickness, difficult instructors, or financial hardship are paving a path to substance abuse and mental health problems. And, in many cases, they don’t even realize it.
Prevalence of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Problems among College Students
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, alcohol consumption is 10 percent higher among college students than non-college people of the same age. Moreover, one in four university students reports reduced academic performance as a result of their substance abuse. But substance abuse isn’t the only problem. For many students, substance abuse occurs in conjunction with a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression. The Journal of the American Medical Association has reported that more than 50 percent of drug users and nearly 40 percent of alcohol users have suffered from mental issues. Common mental illnesses among college students include bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders.
Why Do College Students Historically Resist Seeking Help?
One reason college students don’t seek counseling or rehabilitation for their substance abuse issues or mental health problems is they don’t recognize that they have a problem. Upon looking around, they see that their peers are using drugs and alcohol, too. Or, they may not realize that their month-long bout of anxiety or depression has progressed to become a clinical disorder. Many students who are aware that they’ve developed a major problem may feel too embarrassed to ask for help or not know where to turn. After all, they may see others who easily cope with stressors and function well at college. It can be difficult for students who are suffering to admit that they need help.
Other students may feel that they can control their drinking or drug use. They may find that drinking or using drugs calms them. However, this “calm” is only temporary. Students may not be aware that turning to illicit drugs or alcohol to quell negative emotions paves the way to addiction.
College Students and Mental Health Needs
Many colleges are aware that their students may need mental health support during their academic careers. Most universities have established robust mental health care programs staffed by trained therapists and counselors. However, not all colleges can afford to invest in this type of resource. Nevertheless, stressors that range from financial difficulties to academic struggles surround college life. Also, the personal lives of students contribute to their overall stress. College relationships, breakups and loneliness can all trigger a mental health disturbance.
College students are in a unique situation, particularly those who are living far from home. Without family support or their familiar setting, they can experience tremendous unease when experiencing a mental health crisis. These students need to know that there is help nearby—if not on campus, then at a treatment center close to campus. They need to be made aware that their suffering is not singular and that many students need counseling to get back on track—and typically do get back on track once they’ve gotten the professional help they need.
Substance Misuse Among College and University Students
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has reported that marijuana use has reached an all-time high among college students, and alcohol use has increased in this demographic as well. While some drugs like Vicodin and synthetic cannabinoids have decreased, other problematic practices such as vaping and binge drinking have continued to impact college students.
Students often begin their use of alcohol and illicit drugs recreationally, as many of their peers do. Binge drinking is especially problematic for students and comes with serious health risks like alcohol poisoning. Moreover, when students misuse drugs and alcohol, they’re more likely to engage in other high-risk activities such as driving under the influence or having unprotected sex.
Seeking Help for a Substance Abuse or Mental Health Problem
The lifestyle practices that students embrace in college can have lifelong consequences. Although university life can feel like a world all its own, it is not isolated from the rest of life. Establishing unhealthy substance abuse habits and mental health coping strategies can affect student lives during and after college. Students who drink and use illicit drugs routinely must consider how these activities are affecting their lives and studies. In order to seek help, students must first acknowledge that they may have a problem.
Students can begin to address their mental health or substance abuse issues by visiting their on-campus health facility if one exists. Many universities feature counseling centers that are separate from the health facilities. Finding this information is typically as easy as visiting the college website’s campus map. Conversely, students can confide in their families and make plans to visit a different mental health center near their college or back home.
There is a lot at stake for young people who are trying to juggle the new responsibilities of adulthood. The pressure can take a mental toll on students and necessitate interventions. Counseling can be highly effective for students. A counselor or therapist can help them find ways to cope with their negative emotions in healthier ways.
Moreover, seeing a professional healthcare provider can lead to a diagnosis and high-quality treatment that might come in the form of routine counseling or even medication. Some students may even opt to pause their college studies to enter rehab. While this is never an easy decision, it’s the best decision for students who have developed an addiction. Getting treatment can safeguard a person’s health and future. Once students can successfully manage their mental health disorder or substance addiction, they can return to their normal lives and proceed with their academic pursuits.