Now that the college school year is back in full swing, parents of college students and college-aged children should be hyperaware of the potential of drug abuse and addiction among this age group.  There are many reasons that college students and young adults are at higher risk for drug problems, but if caught early, there is also much likelihood that these users and abusers can avoid years, decades, or even lifetimes of addiction.  It’s important to know the substances they are likely to abuse, the warning signs to watch for, and how to get them help when they need it.

College Students & Risk

The reasons that college students are at a high risk for substance abuse are numerous.  First of all, for many, it is their first time away from home without supervision. Living in a dormitory setting, students who are in their late teens and early twenties do not have anyone to answer to other than themselves, and they are free from the rigid schedules they were forced to adhere to during their high school years.  They can stay out as late as they want, and sleep as late as they need to recover from a night or weekend of partying.   Furthermore, drinking and drug use is often a part of college culture in many places, and may be encouraged by their peers, or during a “rush” for a fraternity or sorority.  Add in the fact that some students may feel shy or out of place, and are looking to fit in, and it is no surprise that such a large proportion of first year college students participate in underage drinking and drug use.

As the college years pass, students may use drugs and alcohol for other reasons.  College courses may increase in difficulty as graduation nears and that may cause stress.  Students may drink or use drugs to blow off steam, or alternately, they may take drugs to help them focus on work and stay up later to study.   Some students may find that they gain weight during their college years, and may take stimulants in an effort to counteract that physical change.  Athletes may feel compelled to take steroids to keep up with their teammates and the competition, too.

College students are at an age and stage in their development where they are just figuring out who exactly they are and what that means.   They are open to trying new things and to taking risks.  When drugs and alcohol play a part in all of that, things can go downhill fast if issues are not quickly addressed.

Common Drugs Abused by College Students

There are three main categories of substance abuse for college students: alcohol, prescription drugs, and party drugs.   Each of these are prevalent in colleges across the United States and according to statistics, the frequency of use of all three is growing every year.  An article by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrationstates that as many as half of the 5.4 million full time college students in America admit to binge drinking or using drugs at least once a month, and that is up from years past.  Whether students indulge in substances in just one of these categories or some combination of the three, if left unchecked, an occasional weekend experience can quickly spiral into a problem or addiction.

  • Alcohol is the most abused substance on college campuses nationwide.  The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism believes that four out of five college students drink, and half of all students engage in binge drinking activities (defined here as consumption of more than three drinks in a sitting in an attempt to get drunk). Students drink to fit in, to relax, to lower their inhibitions, and to decrease stress, anxiety, or depression.  Drinking alcohol can be very dangerous, especially for people in this age group; The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that more than 1,700 students die each year from alcohol related incidents, including alcohol poisoning.  Prescription Medications.  Many prescription medications are easy for college students to obtain and abuse; they can be accessed through the students’ own doctors, or through friends who have prescriptions.  One study, published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases, found that 62% of students in that study who had ADHD medications had diverted their personal prescriptionto others who didn’t have one.  Further, according to CNN, 81% of college students surveyed did not see any danger in taking drugs as a study aid, and an estimated 30% of all college students have tried it at least once.  According to, the use of amphetamines by college students, including Ritalin and Adderall, nearly doubled between 2008 and 2013, and continues to rise.
  • Party Drugs. Party drugs like LSD, cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin have always made an appearance at college parties, but it too is growing.  Many people try these types of drugs in college and then never do them again afterwards, but some of these are high addictive and can follow the user for years, decades, or a lifetime afterwards.  Also, college students tend to take bigger risks and sometimes mix these drugs, which can be a greater danger than taking any of them individually.

Warning Signs

Unfortunately, it may be difficult for parents to see warning signs when their children are living far away and separate from them.  However, if you have cultivated a close relationship with your son or daughter, even from a distance it may be possible to see subtle or major changes that can indicate substance abuse.  Some of the signs to look for include:

  • Withdrawal from activities they used to enjoy
  • Major swings in weight
  • Slipping grades
  • Skipping classes
  • Getting in trouble with the law
  • Forgetfulness
  • Decreased focus
  • Excessive sleepiness or sleep
  • Traffic accidents
  • Violent outbursts
  • A major change in crowd or loss of friendships
  • Lack of motivation
  • Depression
  • High risk sexual behavior

Although some if not many of these changes may be evident in the early years of college, if more than one becomes obvious, it may be time to intervene.  Observe your son or daughter closely during school vacations and breaks, and keep lines of communication open.  Help your child self-evaluate his or her partying, and gently offer information about risks and ways to behave safely.  If help is needed, find a professional for assistance and move quickly. There is hope, and paths can always be changed.  Be there for your son or daughter and you can help him or her overcome anything.

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