Signs of Drug Abuse in College Students
Most parents feel a mixture of emotions when their child goes off to college. It is common to feel pride and joy, though this is sometimes mingled with a little bit of sadness at the thought of a beloved child going away. However, having a child go to college is generally seen as a happy event. It signals the beginning of a child’s adult life, paving the way for academic, career, and social success. Even though having a child leave home to go to college can be a bittersweet occasion, parents are often thrilled to spend time with their adult children on weekends and holidays, where they can witness their progress and take joy in their thriving.
However, it is sometimes the case that a young adult fails to thrive and prosper in their newfound independence. College life comes with a number of risks, and young people’s developing brains and more limited maturity makes them vulnerable to dangerous behavior patterns. It is natural for parents to worry about many things, especially their adult child’s drug and alcohol use while they’re in college. This worry is sensible, given how common substance abuse in college students is throughout the United States. Oftentimes, however, the behavior of their adult children gives parents more substantial reasons for concern. Recognizing a drinking or drug problem is sometimes easy, but it can also be difficult. Most people who suffer from addictions go to great lengths to hide their problems — even from themselves. For concerned parents, understanding the nature of substance use disorders and learning to recognize the signs of them are essential to providing the support that young adults need.
College Drinking Statistics
College drinking is almost a cliche, but it’s a cliche with a lot of truth. Depictions of college life in films, television shows, and news programs invariably cover the excessive drinking that is common on college campuses. Sometimes these representations are meant to be alarming, but all too often they glorify the experience of getting drunk in college. In fact, college is widely perceived by students themselves as a time to let loose and party. Even some parents are tolerant of this behavior, under the mistaken belief that excessive drinking in college is par for the course and that everyone eventually gets their act together. Most colleges have significant drinking cultures, and this can be especially the case in student organizations like fraternities and sororities. Many students arrive in college with pre-established drinking habits from highschool. Even students who normally do not drink excessively may turn to alcohol abuse in an attempt to fit in with their peers. Given that college is a new environment and that it often represents the first time living away from family members, obtaining peer support through drinking can feel essential. The intense academic pressures of college life can further exacerbate students’ stress. All of these factors and more contribute to the patterns of excessive drinking seen on college campuses.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the percentage of college students between the ages of 18-22 who drank in the last month is 55%. While not every college student drinks, those who do tend to drink excessively. That same study found that of the students who drank, almost two thirds regularly engaged in binge drinking. Binge drinking, a form of alcohol consumption whereby a person consumes high quantities of alcohol in a short period of time, is the most common type of alcohol use among college students. This is especially true for males, who are almost two times more likely to engage in binge drinking than females. While alcohol consumption is not inherently bad, and it’s understandable that young adults over the age of 21 will try alcohol, it is essential to understand that binge drinking is responsible for the majority of alcohol’s potentially harmful effects.
At its worst, alcohol use among college students can be fatal. Every year, approximately 1,825 college students die from unintentional injuries that are directly attributable to alcohol abuse. Many of these deaths are caused by drunk driving. It is estimated that 3,360,000 college students drive under the influence of alcohol every year. Every day, approximately 50 people die from drunk driving accidents — which amounts to 1 person every 50 minutes. Alcohol use is not always fatal, but the number of students who are severely injured in accidents as a result of drinking is astronomically high, tallying up at 599,000 every year. Students are also more likely to experience sexual assault or nonconsensual sex. Reported sexual assaults number 100,000 annually, though it is well-understood that the majority go unreported. The consequences of college drinking can range from debilitating injury and trauma to death.
Even young adults who do not experience life-threatening consequences of alcohol abuse can experience a drastic reduction in their quality of life. College is meant to present young people with opportunities for bettering themselves intellectually, socially, and financially, but individuals who engage in alcohol abuse are likely to worsen their situation overall. 25% of college students report struggling academically as a result of drinking. Excessive drinking and the accompanying hangovers cause students to miss class, study less, and suffer from cognitive problems, resulting in lower grades. One study found that students who engage in binge drinking three times a week are 6 times more likely to fail a test or class assignment, and 5 times more likely to miss class. Drinking, by causing students to fail classes, limits further academic opportunities, lowers self-esteem, and reduces career opportunities after graduation. Severe drinking problems can potentially be so overwhelming that a student drops out of college entirely — or is involuntarily kicked out. This can leave parents in the difficult and uncomfortable situation of having to take care of their adult children.
College Drug Use Statistics
While alcohol remains the most frequently abused substance on college campuses and the world at large, drugs tend to be plentiful on college campuses as well. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that marijuana use among college students is at an all time high, with one 2018 study reporting that 1 in 17 college students abuse marijuana on a daily basis. Hard drugs are also ubiquitous. 3% of college students abuse prescription opioids, and a disturbingly high 11% of college students abuse amphetamine drugs like Adderall. The reasons for drug abuse are often similar to reasons students abuse alcohol: drug use can be perceived as a social lubricant or a way to let off steam. However, many college students use what are sometimes referred to as “study drugs” to improve their cognitive performance and energy. Amphetamine drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, which are generally prescribed to treat the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can be used recreationally to help students cram before an exam. The most popular drug on college campuses is cannabis, but amphetamine drugs are also ubiquitous and pose far more risks. Unfortunately, the vast majority of students do not believe they are endangering themselves.The most popular drug on college campuses is cannabis, but amphetamine drugs are also ubiquitous and pose far more risks. 30% of students report having tried a study drug at least once, and 81% of students believe that using amphetamine drugs recreationally is relatively risk-free. The reality, however, is that these drugs can lead to addiction, mental and physical health conditions, and ultimately worse academic performance.
Physical Signs of a Drinking or Drug Problem
Most people who suffer from substance use disorder go to great lengths to hide their addictions from others, and many fail or are unwilling to recognize their problems themselves. However, when alcohol or drug abuse becomes severe, it can be difficult to hide the physical health effects. Sometimes these physical signs can be easily mistakenly attributed to a different underlying health issue, but when a number of them occur or don’t seem to go away over time, that is generally cause for concern. Common physical signs of a drinking or drug problem can include (but are not limited to):
- Changes in eating habits, increased or reduced appetite
- Sleep problems, including insomnia, waking up in the middle of the night, and chronic fatigue
- Dilated or pinpoint pupils, red or watery eyes
- Hands that are cold, sweaty, or shaky
- Foul body odor, or strange smells on the breath or clothes
- Hyperactive behavior, including excessive talkativeness or energy
- Worsened physical coordination
- Staggering or slowed gait
- Gastrointestinal problems, including nausea, vomiting, and constipation
- Excessive sweating
- Needle marks on the arm, leg, or feet
- Irregular heartbeat
- Worsened hygiene and reduced attention to personal appearance
- Frequent rubbing of the nose, nosebleeds, and sniffing
- Constantly twisting ones jaw
- Hacking cough, or other lung problems
- Broken blood vessels
The physical symptoms of substance abuse ultimately depend on which substances a person uses, what route of administration they use, how much they use, and their general underlying physical health. It is important to understand that regular substance abuse can lead to a wide variety of physical health conditions. While treating these conditions themselves can offer temporary relief, a young person who continues to engage in substance abuse will likely experience a recurrence of their health problems and even develop new ones. Dangerous health conditions that substance abuse makes more likely include:
- Heart attack
- Cardiovascular problems
- Respiratory problems
- Hepatitis B and C
- Multiple types of cancer
Behavioral Signs of a Drinking or Drug Problem
Parents may notice behavioral changes in their adult children long before physical symptoms of an addiction manifest themselves. Alcohol and drug abuse can dramatically alter a person’s way of conducting themselves, moods, and energy levels. Parents who have watched their children grow up generally have a good sense of their children’s personalities, so they may be the first to recognize the sometimes subtle, sometimes extreme behavioral changes caused by drug and alcohol abuse. Common behavioral signs of a substance use problem include (but are not limited to):
- Dishonesty, chronic lying
- Poor academic performance, including bad grades, skipping school, and failing classes
- Poor work performance
- Sudden changes in hobbies and regular activities
- Problems paying attention, increased forgetfulness
- Unexplained oversensitivity, resentful behavior, and being quick to anger
- Loss of interest in family activities or seeing friends
- Lack of motivation, drive, energy — increased apathy and indifference
- Uncontrollable silliness and giddiness
- Increased need for privacy
- Decreased communication
- Mood swings, irritability, or nervousness
- Car accidents
- Secretive behavior
- Changes in personal grooming habits and hygiene
- Need for higher amounts of money, stealing
- Changes in friend groups, especially friends who are drug users
- Possession of drug paraphernalia
- Owning a fake ID card to obtain alcohol under the age of 21
- Needing to get a prescription refilled too early
Dangers of Substance Abuse for Young Adults
Drinking and drug use in college lead to far more than just immediate symptoms. Both the short and the long term consequences of substance abuse can be catastrophic. Regular substance abuse can make it difficult to function in the world and saps young adults of their ability to engage effectively with others. The first consequence that college students may notice is their grades slipping. This may start off simply: a student is hungover and decides to come in late for class or skip one session. With time, these absences can add up and make it difficult to process the class material. The fatigue, stress, and reduction in cognitive abilities that accompanies substance abuse can also make it difficult to finish assignments on time or complete them satisfactorily. College courses are intellectually demanding. When a student is distracted by drugs and alcohol, or the withdrawal symptoms associated with abusing substances, it can be difficult to pass examinations or even the class itself. Unfortunately, struggling in classes can lead to additional stress, and this situation can make the temporary relief offered by substance abuse even more tempting.
However, most students have active and full lives that include far more than just academics. Students who are working jobs while enrolled in classes may find their performance suffering, and many people lose their jobs entirely as a result of their drinking or drug use. This can further entrench financial difficulties that students normally face, difficulties that are far more severe when a person is spending all of their discretionary income on recreational drugs and alcohol. To rectify financial woes, young people with addictions sometimes turn to stealing, petty crimes, or even more severe criminal behavior. Legal problems and financial problems can complicate a person’s life unpleasantly at best, and can wreck it entirely at worst.
College is also a time when young people have more social opportunities than ever before. They are exposed to new people from all over the world, and they have chances to connect with people and form social networks that they can take with them into the future. Doing so is a source of joy and can also be a pragmatic investment in a future career. However, students who abuse drugs and alcohol can suffer significant interpersonal consequences. The disinhibiting effects of drugs and alcohol can cause students to behave in ways that are embarrassing, shameful, aggressive, violent, or simply out of touch. These alienating behaviors can lead to social ostracization or more severe consequences. It is sometimes the case too that young people opt out of social engagement entirely, either to prioritize drugs and alcohol, or as a consequence of substances’ depressant effects. As a result, students who abuse alcohol and drugs tend to have less social success, decreasing their resources and social support system in the present — and in their futures as well.
Substance abuse is also highly correlated with mental health difficulties. Binge drinking in college students is associated with higher rates of psychiatric problems. When combined with drug use, alcohol abuse makes it difficult to maintain a healthy emotional balance. Substance abuse can lead to a wide range of mental health disorders, including major depression, anxiety disorder, and panic attacks. Substance abuse can also exacerbate the symptoms of pre-existing mental health disorders, like schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. People who suffer from alcohol addiction as well as mental health disorders are sometimes referred to as “dual diagnosis.” Dual diagnosis college students with comorbid conditions often encounter greater difficulties managing their mental health problems and substance abuse. This is because addiction not only creates conditions for and worsens mental health issues, but mental health issues themselves can be a causal factor for addictions. Dual diagnosis young people can therefore find themselves trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle from which it is difficult to escape.
How Does Addiction Occur?
Many young people who abuse drugs and alcohol are under the impression that they are safe from the harmful effects because they are young. Binge drinking in college students, for example, is so normalized by cultural standards that most people are hardly conscious that it is dangerous. Even close friends and family members are sometimes susceptible to this error, shaking their heads with laughter at high or drunk college students because, well, it’s just college… The assumption is that no matter how heavily or abusively a person drinks or uses drugs in their teens or early 20s, they’ll eventually get their act together.
This is sometimes true. Not everyone who binge drinks in college has or even develops an alcohol use disorder, and some people do in fact quit drugs after college. However, drug abuse, especially when hard drugs are involved, and alcohol abuse, especially as it pertains to binge drinking, dramatically increase the likelihood of addiction? Sure, some people escape it and manage to live healthy and prosperous lives after college. That’s the social expectation. But not everyone makes it.
Why? To understand how addiction works, it’s important to examine the effects of substances on both a psychological and a physical level. People drink or take drugs for many reasons, but most reasons eventually boil down to one: to feel good. While alcohol and the various recreational drugs provide different effects, people consume them because these effects are pleasurable to them. To understand how addiction occurs, it is essential to look at the neurological underpinnings of this experience of pleasure and euphoria sometimes known as intoxication, or a “high.” The pleasure that occurs when a person takes drugs or drinks alcohol occurs because the substance causes the brain to release high quantities of a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Dopamine is always present in the brain in small quantities. Sometimes known as the brain’s reward chemical, dopamine plays an essential role in the brain’s motivation and decision-making centers. It is released when a person scores a point in basketball, has sex, or accomplishes a personal goal. Dopamine is how the brain tells itself it’s done a good job. It is a reinforcer of behavior, and the more dopamine that is released, the more likely it is for a person to repeat that behavior.
Drugs and alcohol release enormous quantities of dopamine. The level varies, of course. More addictive drugs, like heroin or fentanyl, release such high quantities of the neurotransmitter that a person can be driven to return to use again almost right away. Other drugs may simply leave a very positive impression, so that a young person is left thinking, “I should really do that again some time.” Each time a person uses a substance and releases dopamine, the alcohol or drug-taking behavior becomes further reinforced. This can lead to patterns of drinking and using that are astonishingly regular, such as the daily drinker who claims they drink every night because they want to. Their “want” is driven by dopamine, which has hijacked the motivation centers of their brain.
Over a sufficient period of time, a person taking drugs and alcohol becomes accustomed to the effects. Their brains and bodies become used to the chemical effects of the substance and develop a new equilibrium. Once that equilibrium has been established, whenever the drug or drink is absent, the body reacts to this sudden lack. This experience, known as withdrawal, can be both physically and mentally agonizing — and sometimes life-threatening. Once a person has developed this kind of physical dependence on a substance, the only cure for withdrawal symptoms is to return to baseline by taking more drugs or drinking. It is this physical dependence that develops substance abuse from the first stage, which is characterized by a person wanting to use substances, to the second stage, during which a person feels they need to use a substance in order to avoid suffering.
As physical dependence sets in, so too does a phenomenon known as tolerance. The brain and body of a drug user rapidly grow acclimated to the chemical effects of a substance. Over time, the same dosage will have a reduced effect. For example, after growing accustomed to drinking every day, a few beers stop being so intoxicating. Or after getting high for a while on a prescription opioid, a person requires a more potent opioid or has to take it in higher quantities to achieve the desired euphoria. In the case of opioids, this occurs because opioid abuse actually causes the opioid receptors in the brain to multiply. The phenomenon of tolerance motivates drinkers and drug users to drink and use drugs in higher quantities, with greater frequency, and often also results in them turning to more potent — and dangerous — substances. With time, physical dependence gets worse, and psychological dependence can emerge as well. At this point, a person can be said to suffer from addiction.
Risk Factors for College Students
No one is immune to addiction, even straight A students, but no one is predestined for it either. Substance use disorders are medical conditions with a wide range of causal factors, and no single factor is responsible for causing a person to develop an addiction. However, researchers have long known that both environmental and biological factors play a role in addiction.
Addiction has a powerful genetic component. There are a number of specific genes that make a person more susceptible to addictive behavior. To determine a college student’s likelihood of addiction, it can be helpful to examine their family history. Individuals with a family history of addiction are significantly more likely to develop a substance use disorder. In fact, children of addicted parents are 8 times more likely to develop an addiction. A number of studies have also been done on twins. Studies show that among twins who are separated at birth, rarely does just one of them suffer from addiction. While no one is born an addict, the genetics a person is born with do affect a person’s susceptibility to addiction.
However, environmental factors also play an important role. The circumstances of a person’s early childhood upbringing have a dramatic effect on personality, impulse control, and brain chemistry. Part of the reason that having parents with addiction makes a person more likely to develop the condition themselves is due to environmental factors. Parents who suffer from addiction are less functional, and therefore they tend to run homes that are unstable, unpredictable, and sometimes even violent. Exposure to early childhood trauma is a major causal factor for addiction. Other environmental factors include:
- The quantity of substance abuse engaged in by a person’s peers
- The availability of drugs and alcohol in a person’s community
- Lack of parental supervision
- Adverse childhood experiences, including maltreatment and dysfunctional homes
- Peer pressure
One of the most important factors is the age at which a person first began using drugs and alcohol. Individuals who begin using substances at an earlier age are more likely to develop physical dependence and addiction. This is partly because their brains are not fully formed. Immature brains are more malleable and learn more quickly and readily. While this is an advantage for young people in many ways, when it comes to substance abuse it is dangerous. Not only are young people who abuse drugs more likely to develop an addiction, however, they are also more susceptible to behavioral problems and mental health disorders, which are also risk factors for addiction in themselves. Perhaps most concerningly, substance abuse can permanently rewire a young person’s brain, leading to memory and cognitive problems that never quite dissipate even after quitting substances. Early substance abuse can therefore set a person up for a great deal of challenges, not just challenges with drugs and alcohol. Given that brains do not finish developing until a person’s mid 20s, even college students of legal drinking age are more susceptible to addiction than older adults who are more set in their ways.
How Can You Tell if Your Adult Child has an Addiction?
Addiction is more than just a problematic behavior. It is a legitimate and deeply debilitating medical condition. The process of how addiction develops (outlined in the above section) shows that addiction is hardly a matter of personal choice — it is caused by neurochemical effects that progressively build and are difficult to overcome. Addiction occurs when a person experiences a range of negative consequences as a result of their substance use but is powerless to control their consumption. Some people go to great lengths to manage their alcohol or drug use because they recognize the destructive effects, but individuals suffering from addiction are unable to control their use for any extended period of time. It is important to recognize that addictions can therefore not be cured by exerting additional will power or by trying harder to stop abusing drugs, since addictions by their very nature affect the brain’s motivation and decision-making centers.
The medical term for addiction is “substance use disorder.” Substance use disorders are diagnosed based on their symptoms. Psychiatrists use a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, to make their diagnoses. The DSM-5 lists a number of symptoms that often occur with substance use disorders. The symptoms of substance use disorder are as follows:
- Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to.
- Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to.
- Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance.
- Cravings and urges to use the substance.
- Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use.
- Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships.
- Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use.
- Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger.
- Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance.
- Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance).
- Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance.
Psychiatrists and medical practitioners recognize that substance use disorder is a spectrum disorder. This means that it can be present at multiple levels of severity among different individuals and also at different points in one individual’s life. Individuals with 2-3 symptoms are defined as mildly addicted. Those with 4-5 symptoms are defined as moderately addicted. Individuals with greater quantities of symptoms suffer from severe substance use disorders. It is important to recognize, however, that substance use disorders of all severities require immediate support. Left untreated, substance use disorders continue to worsen and the destructive effects of alcohol and drug abuse can wreck a person’s life.
Sober Living Homes for College Students
It is common for people to suffer from addiction to go for years, or even a lifetime, without ever seeking help. The social stigma surrounding addiction makes some people shameful or embarrassed, and therefore reluctant to discuss their ongoing struggles. It is common for well-meaning non-addicts to recommend that problem drinkers or drug users exert more self-control, “man up,” and take care of their problem on their own. The prevalent belief that addicts are choosing to engage in substance abuse leads many people to struggle, and fail repeatedly, to stop making that choice. In reality, addiction is a disorder that, by its very nature, takes away a person’s ability to make choices.
Among college students and young adults, there are other factors that stop people from seeking help. Many young adults fail to recognize their addiction at all. They may be suffering enormously and struggling to manage their drug and alcohol use, but when it comes to addiction they’ll claim, “No, not me. I couldn’t be an addict.” This is because the media, from television to newspapers, invariably depicts a stereotyped notion of the addict. These depictions lead people to believe that addicts are not college students, not young, not middle class, and a whole manner of other things that addicts are not. Not all addicts are destitute or unkempt. There are wealthy CEOs who suffer from addiction. Some college students even manage to maintain a 4.0 GPA but nonetheless suffer from addiction.
The first step in dealing with an addiction is therefore to recognize it and seek outside help. For college students, addiction experts often recommend sober living homes. Sober living homes are houses where residents work together to develop and maintain their sobriety. College students benefit from these safe spaces, where they can remove themselves from the triggers normally associated with college party culture. Sober living home staff provide a great deal of support and guidance to help residents develop the tools and coping strategies necessary to maintain their sobriety and avoid needless relapse. Living with other residents who have similar histories of substance abuse can also be a profoundly healing experience. Addiction can be a deeply isolating illness, and many college students feel misunderstood and alienated until they meet fellow addicts and alcoholics. The fact that the other residents in a sober living home are all pursuing recovery can be a source of hope. In fact, studies show that the social support people receive in sober living homes is associated with higher rates of recovery.
Sober living homes are about far more than just keeping people sober. People who quit drugs and alcohol are often overwhelmed by the wreckage of their lives, and sober living homes are designed to provide recovering addicts with the support and tools they need to repair and rebuild their lives. Sober living houses can help college students repair their damaged relationships, learn better study habits, manage their money better, and even help residents find work. The purpose of residing in a sober living home isn’t just to remain abstinent, but to develop a life in sobriety that is fulfilling. College students can therefore be assured of academic success, sober social opportunities, and freedom from the cycle of addiction.