College is often a place where young people experiment with drugs and alcohol. In fact, many view this experimentation as part of the college experience. What starts as seemingly harmless experimentation can quickly progress to regular abuse and even addiction. Some of the most common substances abused among the college crowd include alcohol, marijuana, prescription medications, cocaine, and heroin.
Some students, however, opt to stay away from drugs and alcohol while in college. Whether they have struggled with substance abuse in the past or simply choose to avoid trying these substances in the first place, staying sober in college is an option that many choose.
Alcohol and Binge Drinking
One of the most well-known activities in college life is binge drinking, which the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines as drinking that causes blood alcohol concentration of 0.08, which is the equivalent of roughly 4-5 alcoholic beverages in two hours. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that many college presidents consider binge drinking to be one of the worst problems on campus. In 2005, in a survey of individuals aged 12-20, almost 7.2 million – or 18.8 percent – stated they were binge drinkers. Also, it was noted that approximately 44 percent of students attending a four-year college engage in binge drinking.
NIAAA also lists other consequences of drinking while in college. In an average year:
- Nearly 600,000 college students aged 18-24 experience unintentional alcohol-related injuries, of which approximately 1,825 are fatal.
- Nearly 700,000 students in the same age bracket are assaulted by a peer who had been drinking.
- There are more than 97,000 accounts of alcohol-related sexual assaults, including date rape.
- More than 150,000 students develop drinking-related health problems, and 1.2-1.5 percent of students state that they had attempted suicide due to drug and/or alcohol use.
- Alcohol poisoning can affect thousands of students as well. This occurs when individuals experience problems with breathing and other important body functions due to excessive alcohol intake.
Marijuana is not only commonly used in college; it is the most commonly used illicit drug in the country, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2014 reports that approximately 6.8 million of the surveyed individuals aged 18-25 reported using marijuana currently.
Marijuana is usually smoked, in rolled cigarettes, which are called joints; cigars that have been either totally or partially refilled with marijuana, which are called blunts; or in pipes or water pipes, which are called bongs. Some individuals now use vaporizers, which collect the vapor from the active ingredient in marijuana – THC – so the smoke does not need to be inhaled. Marijuana can also be incorporated into food or tea, called edibles.
Those who use marijuana generally do so due to the drug’s ability to quickly improve their mood or relieve any pain they may be experiencing. However, these are not the only effects marijuana can have on the brain. Since the THC in marijuana essentially over excites the brain, individuals may experience loss of balance, impairments in coordination, altered senses, difficulties with problem-solving abilities and thinking, and impairments in memory or learning. Of course, memory and learning ability are essential for college students, so the negative effects of marijuana in these areas can be significant.
Marijuana may cause long-term effects with continued use; some individuals may experience breathing difficulties, hallucinations, and paranoia.
DrugWatch states that 9 out of 10 students who use marijuana are at a greater risk for participating in other high-risk activities, such as binge drinking. The Center for College Health and Safety states that some officials consider marijuana to be a gateway drug, as well, meaning that its use may encourage students to experiment with other drugs. As a result, marijuana is a substance that is best avoided altogether.
One of the most problematic groups of prescription medications abused by college students is the stimulant category. A study by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids confirmed that roughly half of college students admit to using stimulant drugs. Approximately 44 percent of students interviewed reported using prescription stimulants – such as Adderall and Ritalin – to help them study and improve their overall academic performance, while 31 percent stated they use them to stay awake. Other uses of prescription stimulants include as dieting measures and to enhance athletic performance.
Since it has become easier to obtain these medications – and more socially acceptable to use them – their use has increased significantly. The Center on Young Adult Health and Development states that 5.3 percent of students in one study were prescribed prescription stimulants for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and almost 62 percent of those who had been diagnosed with ADHD diverted (sold, shared, or traded) their stimulant medications.
Prescription pain medications are also widely used. The National Council on Patient Information and Education reports that abuse of prescription pain medications is most prevalent in college-aged young adults, and that about one in four college students has abused prescription medications. There are multiple reasons for why this abuse occurs. Some take these medications to feel high, and others take them to escape stress. Many students do not consider this dangerous because they feel prescription medications are safer than illicit drugs since they are originally prescribed by a doctor. In truth, prescription painkillers are as addictive as heroin and can lead to serious health consequences, including addiction.
Sedatives such as benzodiazepines may be used by students looking to reduce stress or cope with social anxiety. Oftentimes, benzodiazepines, like Xanax or Valium, are abused alongside stimulants, and alcohol.
Cocaine is also a stimulant drug. It is most often snorted, but it can also be smoked or injected, and produce euphoria and a surge in energy. CCHS reports that users may experience negative effects, such as paranoia, anxiety, and irritability.
These effects can occur even with an individual’s first experience with the drug. If injected, individuals will also find themselves at risk for infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
College students may abuse cocaine in an effort to drink more, as the drug’s stimulant properties can counteract the depressive qualities of alcohol. As with all poly-substance abuse, the effects and risks of both alcohol and cocaine are magnified when both substances are used together.
Heroin is an opioid drug that is similar to morphine; in fact, when used, it is converted to morphine in the brain. According to a 2012 National College Health Assessment, 1,296 students who participated in the survey (out of a group of 76,000 responses) stated that they had used heroin, but not in the past 30 days.
Prescription painkillers may also lead to experimentation with heroin. NIDA reports that nearly half of young people who reported injecting heroin stated that they had abused prescription pain medications prior to using heroin. Heroin is cheaper to buy on the street than prescription pain medications, so users often turn to it eventually.
Heroin can be ingested by injection, snorting, or smoking, all of which cause the drug to take effect relatively quickly. No matter the route, heroin is extremely addictive. It is extremely dangerous as it can cause suppression of the receptors in the brain that control automatic – and crucial – body processes, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. Respiratory depression can lead to hypoxia, meaning the brain is being deprived of oxygen. This too can cause coma or brain damage.
Resources to Help You Stay Sober
Collegiate Recovery Programs have become some of the most widely used university initiatives for helping college students who are battling drug and alcohol dependence. The Collegiate Recovery Program at Texas Tech was established in 1986 as the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery, and it is relatively large with 120 students attending, according to The New York Times. Students submit an application as well as recommendation letters when they apply for admission to the program; students must have completed a year of recovery to be considered. The program offers scholarships as well as housing on a floor devoted to students in recovery. In return, students who have been admitted to the program must attend weekly seminars, participate in events sponsored by CRP, and live by the program’s values.
SMART Recovery, or Self Management and Recovery Training, is a program that offers a four-point program for those seeking recovery. They provide educational meetings – which can be attended in person or even online – that help individuals learn how to change their drug- or alcohol-related behaviors, as well as encourage those in treatment to follow their treatment plan, especially if it includes behavioral therapy and medication-assisted treatment. Some of the tools that SMART Recovery can offer individuals include creating a plan for change, creating a hierarchy of values, building confidence, and reducing anxiety. Although this program doesn’t include the 12-Step model used by other programs, it does not exclude the use of such programs in an individual’s treatment plan.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a group that provides peer support for individuals recovering from an alcohol dependence. Members of AA share their experiences with alcohol and may also pair individuals with sponsors who are also in recovery. Any individuals looking for support in recovery may attend AA, and at times, attendance may be required if individuals are court-ordered to attend meetings. AA meetings may even be held on certain college campuses.
While it can feel like the vast majority of college students are partying, drinking, and doing drugs, many choose to stay sober. And they don’t have to do that alone. Various resources, such as sober dorms and recovery programs, exist to help students stay sober in college.
Additional Tips for Sobriety
To maintain sobriety, surround yourself with others who wish to stay sober. Rather than socializing at high-risk places like bars, clubs, and frat parties, opt instead to meet with friends at coffee shops or other alcohol-free venues.
Fill your schedule with fun, sober extracurricular activities. Join a sports team, and have fun with people on the court or field. Every college campus is home to a bevy of clubs dedicated to specific interests, such as music, art, films, literature, and sports; join a club that interests you most and learn to have fun without drugs or alcohol. A college counselor can be a valuable resource for locating sober activities on campus.
For some students, living off campus may be a better option. This way, you may choose your roommates. If you live with others who don’t drink or use drugs – or who are at least supportive of your sobriety – peer pressure to abuse substances will be substantially reduced. Some students choose to live in recovery housing, which may be sponsored by a recovery program associated with the college.