Even though college students may not be experimenting with drugs or alcohol for the first time, many experience increased freedom on campus — and also reach the legal drinking age. 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. Staying informed about these substances and learning to recognize when they put 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 use drugs and alcohol to feel less stressed. Here are some common challenges that college students may face:
Going to college often means a major life change. Whether a student comes straight from high school, from the working world or the 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.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 75 percent of mental health conditions develop by age 24 — and 1 in 5 adults develop a mental health condition every year. Students may have symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, 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 mental health conditions like depression and PTSD. Students may find that when combined with academic pressure and the challenge of finding support in a new environment, living with mental health challenges can be tough and may increase the risk for drug and alcohol problems.
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.
Drugs and alcohol can seem like a natural part of the college experience. In fact, according to a national survey, almost 60 percent of students ages 18–22 drank alcohol in the last month, and almost two-thirds of students engaged in binge drinking during that same time frame. Many students may feel the need to drink or use drugs as a way to fit in or make new friends. In an environment where social life is linked with drug and alcohol use, students may be at greater risk for developing substance use disorders, even when drug and alcohol use isn’t as prevalent on campus as it appears to be.
Many students experiment with drugs and alcohol in college, and it can be difficult to tell when the use of such substances becomes a problem — especially in yourself. Generally, it’s 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 drug problem or signs of an alcohol problem in yourself or in a friend, 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.
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 leading organization working to protect the emotional health of America's college students, and was developed with input from leading experts in mental health and higher education.
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.
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.
The Association of Recovery in Higher Education’s student portal can help you find support at a Collegiate Recovery Program or Collegiate Recovery Community at your college or university.
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.