Even if college students aren't experimenting with drugs or alcohol, many have reached the legal drinking age — and their freedom increases on campus. That can require setting personal boundaries and determining your individual tolerance.
You may like to end your academic week by having a few drinks with friends. You might use drugs or alcohol to open up in social situations — or maybe as a way to alleviate the social, financial, and academic stress that can accompany college life. But some students begin using drugs or alcohol in ways that compound their stress or expose them to physical harm. Staying informed about the effects of these substances and learning to recognize when their use puts you at risk can help keep you safe while you’re in college.
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Every college student has a different story, but many face similar challenges. When the difficulty of managing college life seems overwhelming, some students may use drugs and alcohol to feel less stressed. Here are some common challenges:
Going to college often means a major life change. Whether a student goes there straight from high school, from the business world or military, or from a gap year, adjusting to a new routine can be difficult. Especially in the first year, many students may feel homesick, lonely, or isolated.
Students may feel the need to drink or use drugs as a way to fit in or make friends in a new environment, particularly when campus social life is linked with using drugs and alcohol.
Partying can seem like a natural part of the college experience. But when it involves binge drinking (consuming about four drinks for women and five for men within two hours), drug use, or mixing drugs and alcohol, there’s an increased risk for unsafe situations, injury, and even death. Researchers estimate that every year, among college students ages 18–24:
Other risks include getting in trouble with the police, engaging in unsafe sex, and suffering accidental injuries.
Even if a student earned good grades in high school, college-level work can create a daunting change of pace. Between time in class and hours required for homework, studying, work, and sleep — all while maintaining a social life — it may seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day. And when grades fluctuate, or internship and job applications are rejected, students may feel insecure and question whether they are cut out for the future they have imagined.
This academic pressure can lead to drinking and drug use, sometimes producing a downward spiral. Misusing alcohol and drugs can reduce academic performance, compounding the pressure to do well and increasing the stress that spurred the substance misuse. In fact, about one-quarter of college students report missing class, performing poorly on a test or paper, and getting lower grades due to drinking.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 75 percent of mental health conditions develop by age 24 — and 1 in 5 adults per year experience a mental health condition. Students may have symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder for the first time at college. Students that have survived traumatic events such as sexual assault often experience symptoms of depression and PTSD. Students may find that it’s tough living with a mental health condition when it’s combined with academic pressure and the challenge of finding support in a new environment, and that may increase their risk for drug and alcohol problems.
As a college student, you can keep yourself safe by avoiding binge drinking, staying away from illegal drugs, and abstaining from mixing alcohol and drugs. It’s also important to recognize when you, or someone around you, is facing imminent danger from drinking or using drugs, whether it’s at a party, among a small group of friends, or at home.
If you experience or observe the following signs, it’s time to intervene:
These symptoms can indicate alcohol poisoning, drug overdose, or Rohypnol consumption. You should call 911 if someone is being led away without their consent, if someone’s breathing has slowed to less than eight breaths per minute, or if you can’t wake someone up.
It’s also time for concern when drug or alcohol use interferes with your daily life: your relationships, your studies, or the activities that keep your life on track. Some common symptoms can include loss of sleep or appetite, mood changes, dilated pupils, erratic behavior, or a lack of motivation. If you notice signs of a problem, it may be time to reach out for support.
As a college student, you don’t have to deal with drug or alcohol problems alone. Many colleges and universities have counseling centers, specialists in substance use disorders, or other mental health resources available to support students. Often on-campus counselors can refer students to long-term resources that have worked for others or can identify effective student support groups. Your university’s website can be a helpful starting point for finding support, choosing treatment options, and starting your recovery.
Student groups can be a great way to connect with friends and mentors living through similar experiences with drugs and alcohol. Check the college directory, club fair, or student health center to find a group that works for you. Recovery is possible, and finding support can help you feel less alone.
ULifeline – Your online resource for college mental health
ULifeline is an anonymous, confidential, online resource center, where college students can be comfortable searching for the information they need and want regarding emotional health. ULifeline is a project of The JED Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to protect the emotional health of America's college students, and was developed with input from renowned experts in mental health and higher education.
Association of Recovery in Higher Education
Are you a college student in recovery? Find support at a Collegiate Recovery Program or Collegiate Recovery Community at your college or university.
College Drinking – Changing the Culture
Sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, College Drinking – Changing the Culture is a good resource for students looking to take control of their drinking habits. If you’re wondering how alcohol affects your body and mind, this interactive website can help.
National Institute on Drug Abuse
The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides information about individual drugs, updates on studies about drug use among college students, and clinical trials of treatments for substance use disorders.
Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery
Whether you’re looking for recovery support on campus or you’d just like to get more involved in preventing substance abuse, the Students page of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery website can help you navigate the recovery process.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Increasing health security in the U.S. is the main mission at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This includes providing information on the dangers of binge drinking and the latest epidemic threats to the nation.
The Office on Women’s Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is a comprehensive resource on women’s health issues, including alcohol consumption and date rape drugs.