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Addiction in College Students

College is a new and exciting experience for young adults. They’re living away from home, getting to make their own choices for the first time, making friends and expanding their minds with a variety of classes. For many people, it’s one of the fondest memories of their lifetime. However, college also has a dark side. Substance abuse is rampant on most college campuses, and the idea of your child developing an addiction in college is terrifying for any parent. The first element of addressing potential substance abuse is to understand everything there is to know about addiction in college students.

What Drugs Are College Students Abusing?

College kids have access to a dizzying array of drugs, with more options than you might imagine. The following five substances are some of the most popular on college campuses.

1. Alcohol

There’s no doubt that alcohol is the most abused substance among college students. The sheer volume of marketing for alcoholic beverages and its legality makes it incredibly attractive to easily influenced young adults. Our society, for the most part, accepts alcohol consumption as normal. Anyone who has watched a movie aimed at teens knows that college kids are almost expected to consume alcohol regularly, and often in dangerous quantities.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducts regular research based on health data from sources like the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The most recent iteration of this report shows incredibly disturbing trends in the alcohol use of college students ages 18 to 22:

  • 60% of full-time college students drank alcohol in the past month.
  • 39% engaged in binge drinking.
  • 13.2% engaged in heavy alcohol use.

Most experts define binge drinking as having four drinks for women and five drinks for men within two hours. Heavy alcohol use is defined as engaging in binge drinking on one or more days over the past month.

Those who are members of fraternities or sororities are at even higher risk for binge drinking and problems related to alcohol use. The reputation for wild parties in Greek life creates the expectation that all members will drink heavily. Evidence even suggests that high schoolers who have a history of drinking are more likely to join a Greek house, exacerbating the problem even further.

2. Marijuana

Marijuana is second only to alcohol in terms of rate of use and perceived acceptability. Now that multiple states have medical or recreational marijuana programs, the incorrect perception that the substance is harmless is continuing to spread. A study of more than 1,400 college students revealed that 25% had used marijuana in the past 30 days and that 43% of students had used marijuana at least once in the past 12 months.

Despite remaining federally illegal, marijuana is surprisingly easy to obtain. Most students get it from a friend, and some even go so far as fraudulently obtaining a medical marijuana card in states where that’s an option. Students use marijuana as a way to relax or ease stress.

Edibles are a particular danger, as they often contain high amounts of THC, take a long time to produce effects and create stronger reactions than smoking marijuana. Marijuana is also addictive, despite what many college students believe. Abusing it can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms like extreme irritability, appetite loss and inability to focus, which are not conducive to strong academic performance.

3. Study Drugs

You may hear of college students referring to prescription stimulants like Adderall® or Ritalin® as “study drugs.” When taken as prescribed, these medications allow people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to function more normally. When taken by someone who doesn’t have ADHD, these drugs create the sensation of greater focus and alertness. Students might take them to stay awake and cram for tests. However, they don’t make users smarter and don’t help with complex learning.

A significant portion of students use stimulants to feel high or just as an experiment. A comparison of two studies at two different colleges shows the variability of how students interact with prescription stimulants. The first study, conducted at a small liberal arts college, found that almost one in three students had abused Adderall at one point or another. The second, larger national study showed that only about 7% had abused the drugs, so the prevalence of this issue varies from college to college.

Stimulants like Adderall are prescribed to about 16 million Americans, so it’s easy for kids to find a fellow student willing to part with some of their prescriptions. Many college students don’t know the risks associated with stimulant abuse, including:

  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Hyperventilation
  • Decreased blood flow and impaired circulation
  • Blood sugar spikes

These medications can also cause episodes of paranoia or even psychosis when taken outside of a prescription.

4. Club Drugs

“Club drugs” are so named because young adults tend to use them at bars, clubs, concerts, parties and raves. They include:

  • GHB
  • Ketamine
  • MDMA (Ecstasy)
  • Methamphetamine
  • LSD

College students use club drugs to enhance sensation and euphoria in social settings. If a student gets their hands on multiple doses, however, they can start using it alone and quickly develop an addiction. It’s even more dangerous when students think they can mix alcohol with these drugs. This combination strengthens the effect of the drugs, potentially causing serious side effects. In severe cases, combining club drugs with alcohol can even cause death.

5. Benzodiazepines

College students are stressed, and some may take benzodiazepines to try and calm down or get some sleep. Rates of benzodiazepine abuse and related emergency room visits and deaths have skyrocketed over the past several years. Benzodiazepine abuse is a serious problem for college students because many don’t understand the extreme danger of combining this class of drugs with alcohol.

When combined, the two drugs slow the activity of neurons in the brain and cause severe respiratory depression. Even abusing benzos on their own can lead to severe side effects like memory impairment and wide-sweeping behavioral changes.

How to Recognize the Signs of Addiction in Your College Student

It’s challenging to look for many of the typical signs with college student addiction, especially if they don’t live at home. If you’re worried that your child is abusing drugs or alcohol and on their way to full-fledged addiction, look for any of these five signs.

1. Cutting off Contact

College students get busy, and it’s not abnormal for them not to pick up immediately whenever you call them. However, if your child seems to be actively avoiding you, it may be due to substance abuse. Addiction causes people to withdraw from relationships as a means of hiding drug use.

2. Failing Grades

Despite the immense cost of college education, grades are frequently the first thing to slip when addiction sets in. The student may lose motivation to do well in school, replacing it with a strong desire to obtain and consume drugs or alcohol.

3. Daytime Sleeping

College students like to sleep in, but excessive napping during the day can be a result of addiction. Spending nights and early mornings getting high or drunk will tire anyone out, and students who are addicted will often choose to skip class to sleep rather than give up their substance abuse and revert to a healthy sleep schedule.

4. Deteriorating Appearance

Although college students aren’t known for sparkling hygiene, those who are abusing drugs or alcohol will start looking like they’re neglecting basic maintenance. They may wear dirty clothes, bathe less or skip deodorant applications. They also might have bloodshot or baggy eyes from sleep disturbances.

5. Unexplained Financial Problems

Students are often strapped for cash, but they should be able to explain their situation when they call you and ask for money. If your child asks for money without a clear reason or tries to deflect or ramble when you ask them what it’s for, there’s a chance their drug or alcohol habit is siphoning off their funds.

College Students and Mental Health Struggles

College students often struggle with mental illness. Depression is a common one. Even without chronic depression, many students succumb to depressive periods where they don’t feel like participating in social or academic life. During these periods, students might be tempted to drink too much or do drugs to quiet their pain or feelings of numbness.

Anxiety is the most prevalent mental health problem students have, with 63% reporting feelings of overwhelming anxiety in the past year. About 23% of them receive a formal diagnosis or are treated by a mental health professional, leaving the majority to struggle without help.

One of the major reasons students start abusing drugs or alcohol is as a means of self-medication. They may feel that having a drink or smoking a joint will help them relax. Repeated consumption of drugs and alcohol leads to tolerance, which means the individual has to take more of the substance to feel the desired effects.

Once addiction develops, it has a negative relationship with mental illness. Just as mental illness can drive a student to abuse a substance, continued abuse worsens the symptoms of the mental illness. When mental illness and addiction collide, specialized dual diagnosis treatment is needed to promote recovery.

Preventing Substance Abuse in College

As a parent, you want to do everything in your power to ensure your child doesn’t turn down the path of addiction in college or beyond. While you can’t be there to watch over them all the time, there are a few things you can do to help prevent substance abuse in your college student.

1. Talk About It

Conversations about drug abuse in college students often result in a lot of eye-rolling, but you should still have a frank talk about addiction with your child. You can ask open-ended questions like “What do you think about study drugs?” to get a better idea of their attitude. Come prepared with enough facts to make it obvious that you know your stuff, but resist the urge to turn it into a lecture. Honest communication is key.

2. Monitor Their Finances

Most parents who give their kids financial support for college have some access to the bank accounts for transfers and monitoring. Keep an eye on the money that comes in and make sure it’s not going out too quickly. Frequent ATM withdrawals is a suspicious behavior, as there’s no good reason to need to carry and replenish cash all the time. Another tactic they might use is getting cash back at the grocery store. If they’re going to the store with odd frequency and seem to be racking up a massive food budget, it may be because they are taking out excess cash to fund their substance abuse.

3. Keep in Contact

No college student wants to have a nightly conversation with their parents, and that kind of helicopter parenting can cause unnecessary friction in your relationship. However, establishing an expectation of regular contact is not unreasonable and can help you keep tabs on your child. Setting up a bi-monthly family dinner, for example, will allow you to see any changes in behavior or presentation that may indicate addiction.

4. Emphasize Mental Health

Every college student needs to understand that mental health struggles are common and not a sign of weakness or failure. If they feel stressed, depressed or have another issue to deal with, let them know that you will support them in finding a counselor. Becoming more familiar with the signs of depression and anxiety as well as asking your child about how they’re doing will help uncover any mental health problems before they lead to self-medication with drugs or alcohol.

Treating Addiction in College Students

If you identify addiction in your college student, you’re not alone. Many parents are terrified that their child’s substance abuse spells the end of a promising future, but with proper treatment, college students can overcome substance abuse and cope with their mental health problems. For college students over 18, there are many options for effective addiction treatment.

Many college students choose to complete residential treatment during the summer months, and a good program will offer robust aftercare to help keep them on track after the initial program. Tranquil Shores is a Tampa Bay treatment and recovery center for people struggling with addiction to drugs and alcohol. With a variety of evidence-based treatment and compassionate care, your college student can pick up the tools they need to build a lasting recovery.

If you’re looking for more information on addiction, treatment and recovery, contact Tranquil Shores today. You can give us a call at (727) 591-4119, and one of our experienced representatives will answer your questions about starting the process of recovery.

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