College is widely perceived as a time during which young people can let loose and experiment. Highschoolers look forward to college, because it represents a place where they can meet a wide variety of new people, become exposed to new ideas, and live away from their families. Part of going to college involves having new experiences. For many, these new experiences involve drug and alcohol use. Drugs on college campuses, even illegal street drugs, are often perceived as almost as essential to the college experience as final exams are. Media depictions of college in television shows and movies often paint a picture of college life that involves partying, copious amounts of liquor, and a rockstar lifestyle. For many, the stressors of college life, which arise both from academic pressure and the sometimes scary experience of being away from family for the first time, can motivate drug and alcohol use as well. Even parents are often trained to expect this behavior from their adult children, shaking their heads at their children’s excesses and thinking, “Oh kids.” Many parents believe that substance abuse in college is generally not dangerous and that children will get their acts together by the time they graduate.
The reality is that the drugs college students use are frequently dangerous and highly potent substances. Moreover, the way young people consume these drugs is often particularly dangerous. Without proper guidance and support, it is common for young people in college to develop substance use disorders, academic problems, mental health issues, and sometimes even to get seriously injured. It is important for families to understand the risks posed by the most popular drugs used by college students. With the rise of designer drugs and the growth of the pharmaceutical industry, it is likely that your college student is experimenting with drugs you’ve never even heard of!
By far, the most popular drug on college campuses is alcohol. In fact, alcohol is the most popular drug in the world. It may come as some surprise for readers to see alcohol top the list of most popular drugs on college campuses, because many people have accepted alcohol as such an important part of culture and social life that they forget that it is a drug! The fact that alcohol is a perfectly legal — and quite common — drug, however, does not negate its potentially devastating effects. Alcohol is actually classified as a hard drug because it’s withdrawal effects so easily lead to physical dependence. In fact, despite its ubiquity, alcohol is far more damaging to people’s lives and to communities than more notorious street drugs like crack cocaine and heroin. The world’s most popular legal drug is common on college campuses as well. It is often seen as a way for college freshmen to make friends in a new environment. It flows freely during college frat parties. And many use it to relax after getting through final exams.
While alcohol consumed in moderation by adults of legal drinking age is relatively safe, the most notable fact about college drinking is that young people tend to abuse alcohol more than their older counterparts. In fact, the majority of alcohol use among young people is binge drinking. Binge drinking, which is a pattern of alcohol use that involves drinking high quantities of alcohol in a brief and condensed period of time, is far more dangerous than moderate drinking. It leads to increased intoxication, which can result in black-outs and drunk driving collisions, and it also has more serious health consequences. Research shows that 90% of alcohol use by young people between the ages of 12 and 20 is binge drinking. For this reason, even if your adult child going off to college has no intention of abusing drugs, it is often a good idea to talk to them about their alcohol consumption.
Marijuana, which goes by many names on college campuses, including weed, bud, cannabis, 420, and sometimes pot, is also quite prevalent. When someone asks, “What is the most popular drug on college campuses?” their question will generally be met with an answer using one of these words. Among illegal drugs, marijuana is the most popular recreational drug on college campuses. However, in certain parts of the United States, marijuana has become legal or at least decriminalized. Changing attitudes around marijuana, which was at one point villainized as a dangerous substance that leads immediately to criminal activity, have unfortunately led many people to believe that it is entirely safe! While marijuana is certainly not what the scaremongers of the 1920s made it out to be, the drug is not without its risks. College students who abuse marijuana may feel relaxed or more in touch with themselves for a short period of time, but regular marijuana use leads to poor academic consequences. It can affect memory and cognitive function. Moreover, marijuana abuse is highly linked to mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, which can make it more difficult for young people to succeed both academically and socially in their new lives on campus. At its worst, marijuana can lead to psychological dependence and function as a gateway drug to more dangerous substances.
Many college students, and many older adults as well, are under the mistaken impression that just because a medication is legal and prescribed by a doctor, that it must be safe and risk-free. That misconception couldn’t be further from reality. Prescription medications are often more potent and addictive than so-called “street drugs,” and while their benefits outweigh their risks when used under proper medical supervision, these drugs are not safe to use for recreational purposes. Unfortunately, with each passing year doctors are prescribing high percentages of young people with addictive prescription drugs, in part due to lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry. While many of them take these drugs as prescribed, it is common for young people to misuse or abuse their prescription medications, and it is also common for them to distribute or even sell their pills to recreational drug users on campus. As a result, pills proliferate on college campuses.
The most popular prescription drugs among college students are amphetamines. Amphetamines, which are generally prescribed to treat attention-deficit disorder (ADHD), are sometimes used on a recreational basis to improve focus, memory, cognitive abilities, and attention span. Among college students, amphetamine drugs like Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse are sometimes known as “study drugs.” Even introverted students who do not generally engage in college parties often take them to cram the night before a final exam. 30% of college students claim that they have tried one of these study drugs at least once, and a shocking 81% of college students believe that amphetamines pose relatively few risks. The reality is that even a single dose of amphetamine drugs leads to severe withdrawal symptoms that actually negatively impact cognitive function. At their worst, amphetamine drugs can cause severe health complications and addiction.
Among some of the other most popular drugs used today are benzodiazepines, prescription opioids, and SSRIs. It should come as no surprise that prescription opioids are popular on college campuses, given their ubiquity throughout the country at large. Pain-relieving medications like oxycodone and fentanyl are commonly experimented with among college students, and they are also sometimes taken unintentionally when drug dealers contaminate other substances with fentanyl — a relatively common practice that often leads to opioid overdoses. Benzodiazepines are the most popular drug for anxiety, and while they can be helpful for panic attacks when taken with a prescription, recreational benzodiazepine use can cause amnesia, extreme disinhibition, and severe physical dependence. Benzodiazepine withdrawal can be far more severe than opioid withdrawal can sometimes even be life-threatening. SSRIs, which are currently the most popular depression drugs in the United States, are also commonly taken. While they are rarely abused in and of themselves, drug interactions that occur when an SSRI user engages in drug abuse with other substances can be very dangerous.
Another category of drug that is popular on college campuses is hallucinogens. Substances in this category include LSD, mushrooms, salvia, molly, and ecstasy. Psychedelic drugs like LSD and mushrooms are often perceived as healthier than so-called party drugs. It is widely believed that they are non-addictive, risk-free, and even offer enriching and life-affirming experiences by making people more open to the world. While preliminary studies are currently being conducted showing that certain psychedelic drugs may have therapeutic value, they likely do not offer benefits for people who are simply “tripping.” The more likely case is that college students will feel more distant from reality, suffer mental health problems, and drop out of school. Drugs like molly and ecstasy, which are combinations of MDMA and amphetamine, pose even more risks and are sometimes fatal.
Studies show that cocaine is one of the most common drugs that college students use. This extremely addictive stimulant drug is already dangerous on its own, but the dangers for young people are more extreme. This is partly because college students tend to use cocaine alongside other substances, such as alcohol. Drug interactions between depressants like alcohol and stimulants like cocaine can increase the likelihood of an overdose. When an overdose occurs, respiratory depression and heart attacks can occur, and these are often fatal. College students use cocaine because it makes them feel like they can party longer, but all too often their cocaine use cuts their partying short — and everything else — prematurely.
Young people often believe that they are immune to the consequences of substance abuse. Many consider themselves too young to have a problem. However, the reality is that substance use disorders and substance abuse can affect anyone. Addiction is a legitimate medical problem that requires support. If your adult child is struggling in school because of their alcohol and drug use, it is a good idea to enroll them in a sober living home. Sober living homes offer young people the support and resources they need to stay sober. They also provide a powerful social support group of other young people who are working to maintain their sobriety. Having like-minded peers is essential for everyone, and all the more so for young adults in college. Moreover, sober living homes help young people rebuild their lives as they get sober. The values, skills, discipline, and self-efficacy that young adults develop while living in a sober living house can help them succeed in their academic pursuits — and in their lives beyond college. Best of all, they’ll be able to say no to the drugs that college generally students use.
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