Helping College Students Kick Substance Abuse

Starting college is thrilling, especially for students who are new to living independently away from home. College is also a time for some students to experiment with drugs and alcohol, and some of them end up abusing these substances. With professional help, support from family and friends, and essential resources, college students can kick substance abuse.

Last Updated: 11/05/2020

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Anna-Jurich
A’nna Jurich

MS., LCPC., CRADC

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A’nna Jurich, MS., LCPC., CRADC, is the Executive Director of the Gateway Foundation in Carbondale, Illinois.

Substance abuse at any age can be a serious problem, but it’s a critical issue for those in college. At that point in someone’s life, experimentation with many things can take center stage. One good buzz from a few drinks can lead to experimenting with ecstasy which can then lead to considering harder drugs – and before you know it, a downward spiral into substance abuse and addiction begins.

College students can face serious consequences from these actions. They can wind up with poor grades (and potentially lose any scholarships they might have), dropping out of school, a criminal record (which then means they can’t get student loans), and/or the deterioration of their own health and safety.

It’s important to remember that substance abuse can take many different forms. What looks like substance abuse for one type of drug might look entirely different than another. Even individuals might handle the situation differently; for instance, one person might be able to handle several shots and feel buzzed, while another takes a few shots and feels drunk. But this guide takes that into account and provides a broad overview of substance abuse, the dangers of each different type, the warning signs, and how to get help if you need it.

Substances Commonly Used in College

College is a time of learning about yourself and planning for your future. It’s a time for new friends, great experiences, and some experimentation with things you haven’t tried before. But for some students, that experimentation might also come along with the temptation to use and abuse various substances, from opioids to alcohol.

Though some of the substances are legal, such as alcohol – and in some places, marijuana – and others are available via prescription, there are plenty of illegal substances available. Almost all of them can be found on college campuses. We’ll take a look at what you might encounter, what using or abusing them is like, the warning signs, resources on where to get help if you have a problem, and more. Let’s take a look at the more dangerous side of experimentation while on your college campus.

Opioids

Opioids are a growing problem across the United States – one look at the headlines about massive increases in usage and overdoses makes that abundantly clear. On college campuses, opioids are a growing problem, so much so that some schools are quickly taking action. For instance, Maryland requires all its institutions of higher learning to educate students on opioids. Some examples of opioids include:

  • Morphine
  • Heroin
  • Fentanyl
  • Oxycodone
  • Vicodin
  • Codeine

These drugs might also be called OC, oxy, oxycontin, vikes, percs, or happy pills.

Keep in mind that some of these are prescription drugs, while some are illegal drugs. It’s just as easy to get hooked on prescription drugs as illegal ones, so it is very important to use prescription opioids exactly as directed and only under the supervision of a physician.

Dangers

Opioids are certainly gateway drugs, as made evident by the fact that 80% of heroin users claim their use began with opioids. However, in many cases, opioids are safe when used under a doctor’s supervision. It’s when a person becomes dependent upon them, or takes more than they should and likes the way that feels, that the use becomes a problem. At that point, individuals might experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to cut back. They might also experience more extreme forms of the typical side effects, including drowsiness, mental fog, and constipation. Slowed breathing is another side effect, which can lead to death in cases of overdose.

Warning Signs

It might take some time for warning signs of opioid abuse to show up. Eventually, you might notice drowsiness and changes in sleep habits, unexplained weight loss, flu-like symptoms, hygiene problems, deceased libido, isolation from family and friends, financial difficulties, and changes in exercise habits. Over time, as the addiction becomes more pronounced, the person might not hide it as well, and exhibit intense cravings and an inability to control their use.

Where to Get Help and Support

Colleges and universities have not been immune from the proliferation in opioid misuse and abuse in the United States. In response, various rehab and treatment options are available through various organizations. One in particular is the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. This organization focuses on treating young adults and youth. They have developed a special program called COR-12 (Comprehensive Opioid Response) to address opioid addiction. There are COR-12 treatment facilities in California, Florida, Minnesota and Oregon.

Online Resources

1

American Psychiatric Association – Opioid Use Disorder: A solid overview of opioid use, including where to get treatments and finding additional resources online.

2

American Society of Anesthesiologists – Opioid Abuse: This page provides a great background as to the problem of opioid abuse, including information about how to stop it.

3

National Institute on Drug Abuse – Naloxone for Opioid Overdose – Life-Saving Science: Naloxone is a life-saving drug for victims of opioid overdose. This resource provides information about how it works.

4

Palm Beach County Medical Society – Opioid Addiction Treatment  –  A Guide for Patients, Families and Friends: This is a quick guide to learn more about opioid addiction treatment options, including how to select a provider.

5

SAMHSA – Opioid Treatment Program Directory: If you or someone you know needs help, this directory will help you find the nearest opioid treatment program in your state.

Stimulants

Also known as “study drugs,” stimulants are drugs that keep a person awake or give them a great deal of energy while on a “high.” While some stimulants, such as Ritalin or Adderall, are prescribed for legitimate conditions, the problem arises when students choose to take more than directed, or share the medications with friends. Other examples of stimulants you might find on campus include:

  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamines
  • Vyvanse
  • Concerta

When prescribed for legitimate reasons, the legal forms of these medications can help students a great deal, especially those who suffer from ADHD and similar conditions. But many students will pass them around as a study aid, helping their friends stay up late for exams, giving them bursts of energy and alertness, and a “rush” that goes along with those typical symptoms.

Dangers

Prescription drugs can be abused and overused, which can often lead to overdose. Someone who has not been prescribed these drugs should not take them in any amounts, as they could interact with underlying medical conditions or other medications the student it taking. If this happens, severe internal injury or even death could result. Heart problems, nerve problems, stomach issues, muscle pain and weakness, hallucinations, and other issues with brain function can also occur.

Warning Signs

When the drug is used in large or continuous doses, it can lead to surprising amounts of energy that will become evident rather quickly. Over a short period of time individuals can begin to suffer from severe insomnia, anxiety, and depression. In severe cases, cardiac arrest, seizures and hallucinations can occur as well. The person might do what it takes to get more of the drug, including stealing from others, “doctor shopping” to get more prescriptions, or making trades or purchases of the drug, thus leading to financial issues.

Where to Get Help and Support

Many college and university campuses, such as Rutgers University, offer special Recovery Housing options for its students. These facilities provide community support to students who are recovering from alcohol or drug dependence. Depending on the program, there may also be career, academic and substance abuse counseling and support. Recovery Housing allows students to enjoy the full on-campus college experience without being “on their own” and surrounded by peers who are consuming drugs and alcohol.

Online Resources

1

American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM): The ASAM is a society made up of medical professionals that work on improving treatments for various kinds of addiction. Resources include an e-learning center and special training or educational events.

2

Cocaine Anonymous: Expanding on the Twelve Step process pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous applies that philosophy to those suffering from a cocaine addiction.

3

Crystal Meth Anonymous: This support group is intended to provide support and assistance to anyone who is trying to deal with a crystal meth addiction.

4

Partnership to End Addiction: Whether you’re a teen, college student, parent or professional, this site will be one of the first places to learn more about all types of drugs that can be abused, including stimulants.

5

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services – Mental Health and Addiction Insurance Help: Treatment can be prohibitively expensive without the help of insurance. This site aims to help insureds navigate the complicated health insurance process.

Depressants/Sedatives

Depressants or sedatives are often prescription medications meant to relax an individual in some way. For instance, Xanax or Valium might be prescribed for panic attacks or anxiety disorders. However, when they are used at a dosage higher than directed, shared with others, or somehow obtained illegally, there could be some serious substance issues happening.

Students might have the prescriptions for quite legitimate reasons, but choose to share with friends or abuse them for the relaxing effect. Some are not legal in the United States to possess or use. Some examples of common depressants or sedatives include:

  • Klonopin
  • Ativan
  • Librium
  • GHB
  • Rohypnol
  • Xanax
  • Valium

Dangers

There are many dangers in taking depressants and sedatives, especially when someone builds a tolerance and takes more than a recommended dosage – or tries an illegal one. These can include sweating, slurred speech, marked drowsiness, confusion, irritability, breathing problems, or even slipping into a coma. Keep in mind that if these drugs are bought off the street, they can have other substances in them that can make them much stronger, and thus, can lead to overdose or even death.

Warning Signs

Impaired cognition, slurring of words, loss of coordination, feeling fatigued, and dizziness and blurred vision are all common symptoms of using depressants or sedatives. Signs of abuse include needing more of the drug to achieve the same effect, amnesia, symptoms of depression and anxiety, liver dysfunction, and other medical problems related to tissue damage and overdose. The individual might hide their prescriptions, seem evasive when asked about their feelings or what they are taking, fall asleep at odd times or have problems with memory.

Where to Get Help and Support

One of the most prominent and easily accessible sources of support for help for college students who have problems with sedatives or depressants will be their mental health or counseling services provider. Most colleges and universities with residential students will have these services available, although the extent of the services available will vary. Some campuses, such as the University of Florida, have its Counseling and Wellness Center which offers group counseling and recovery support services for those struggling with alcohol or other drugs.

Online Resources

1

American Board of Addiction Medicine (ABAM): The ABAM certifies addiction medicine physicians. Its website has a search tool to help users find ABAM-certified doctors.

2

Harvard Health Publishing – Sedative, Hypnotic or Anxiolytic Drug Use Disorder: Anyone looking to learn what sedatives and depressants are will appreciate this simple and straightforward guide.

3

Prescription CNS Depressants DrugFacts: A great guide for learning more about depressants with a special emphasis on those available by prescription, including their brand and generic names.

4

r/addiction: This is a social media message board where users can ask or give all types of advice relating to addictive substances.

5

SMART Recovery: SMART Recovery revolves around the application of a 4-step science-based model to help individuals handle a variety of addictions. In addition to local meetings, they have an active online community where anyone can find support.

Alcohol

Alcohol is all around us, and that might be especially true on college campuses, where it’s rare to not find alcohol at a college party. Alcohol runs the gamut from spritzers and low-alcohol-content beers or cocktails to harder liquors and grain alcohols, which have a high proof that can easily inebriate someone with only a drink or two. Since alcohol is so ubiquitous in our society, it’s no wonder that it’s so common on campus. In fact, a 2013 survey found that almost 60% of college students between the ages of 18 and 22 drank alcohol within the prior month.

Binge drinking is also a problem. This is defined as an individual drinking enough to raise their blood alcohol level very quickly. It usually takes four drinks for women or five drinks for men, over the span of two hours. In the above referenced survey, two out of three respondents said they had engaged in binge drinking during that prior month.

Dangers

One of the big problems with drinking is that everyone’s body reacts differently – one person might be able to handle two or three beers, but another is impaired after just one. There is no truly “safe” amount of alcohol. Too much alcohol can lead to physical and mental impairment, loss of coordination, errors in judgment, memory loss or blackouts, and finding oneself in situations that were unexpected or unwanted, such as engaging in risky physical or sexual activity. It can even lead to illegal activity, such as driving under the influence.

Warning Signs

When does the occasional drink with friends turn into a problem with alcohol? Some warning signs to look out for include academic problems, finding new sets of friends to engage in drinking with, increased drinking, ignoring responsibilities to go to the bar, drinking alone in your room, trying to quit but being unable to do so, binge drinking to a point of blacking out, being unhappy when you’re not buzzed, or feeling withdrawal symptoms when not using alcohol.

Where to Get Help and Support

In addition to a student health center or a counseling and wellness center, some colleges and universities will also have an alcohol and substance abuse center. As its name implies, its services will be tailored to students who are struggling with a substance abuse issue, which often includes alcohol. For instance, at Oklahoma State University, there is an on-call counselor from the Alcohol & Substance Abuse Center ready to help 24/7.

Online Resources

1

The Addiction Recovery Guide: This site is one of the more comprehensive online sources of addiction information. Topics covered include finding treatment, medications, and holistic approaches to handling addiction.

2

Alcoholics Anonymous: Probably the most well-known alcohol abuse recovery program, its website offers additional resources, including finding a local support group and accessing treatment materials and literature.

3

College Drinking – Changing the Culture: If there is research, statistical data, or information concerning binge drinking and alcohol abuse among college students, this site can probably provide access to that information.

4

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: A major source of information about alcoholism and its effects on health. Much of the resources focus on research and recent discoveries and developments.

5

Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT): This tool is intended for healthcare professionals to screen for alcohol and other substance abuse problems. However, it can be used by anyone who is trying to identify a substance abuse problem and how to get treatment for one.

Marijuana

Marijuana is the dried leaves, flowers, stems and seeds of Cannabis plants. These plants contain THC, a mind-altering chemical that can impart a relaxing effect. After alcohol, marijuana is the most commonly used psychotropic drug in the United States, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. The drug is usually smoked in a pipe or in rolled form, similar to a cigarette or cigar. It can also be eaten in foods, such as brownies, known as “edibles.”

Marijuana has many nicknames – perhaps hundreds of them – but the most common include:

  • Weed
  • Mary Jane
  • Pot

The use of marijuana is rising, especially among college students. A 2019 study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that about 43% of college students used marijuana in the previous year, a seven percent increase over five years, which puts the use at a historic high.

Dangers

Marijuana use can cause altered senses, difficulty thinking, trouble with coordination, sleepiness, changes in mood, hallucinations, and delusions if taken in high doses. Long-term use has been associated with memory impairment and potential decline in cognitive function, especially among those who began using it during high school or college.

Warning Signs

The signs of using marijuana can be quite subtle if a person is using only occasionally. In heavier users, signs include bloodshot eyes, a lingering scent of marijuana smoke on their clothes or body, weight gain due to increased appetite, lack of motivation, slower reaction time, dry mouth, anxiety when not using the drug, nervous or paranoid behavior, and impaired coordination.

Where to Get Help and Support

Many college campuses will have a substance free housing option for residential students. For example, at The College of New Jersey, there is at least one dorm available that prohibits the use and possession of any illegal drug, as well as consumption of alcohol or tobacco products. The misuse or abuse of prescription medication is also prohibited, as is being under the influence of any prohibited substance.

Online Resources

1

Marijuana Abuse and Addiction: Anyone looking for basic or detailed information about marijuana abuse, including teen use, treatment and prevention.

2

Marijuana Anonymous: Marijuana Anonymous uses the Twelve Step method for helping individuals trying to overcome a marijuana addiction.

3

National Institute on Drug Abuse – Marijuana Research Report: This webpage is a comprehensive resource for many aspects of marijuana use, include marijuana use disorders.

4

WebMD – What Is Marijuana Abuse?: This resource goes into what happens when responsible or reasonable use of marijuana becomes a problem due to addiction.

5

Yale Medicine – Marijuana Use Disorder: A balanced look at the benefits and negative aspects that can come with marijuana use and abuse.

Heroin

Morphine is a natural substance taken from the seed pop of certain opium poppy plants. Morphine is commonly used in a hospital setting and can be very helpful for patients with severe pain. Heroin is made from morphine mixed with additives. Heroin is injected, snorted, sniffed, or smoked. No matter the route, it gets into the brain very quickly and affects the receptors that control pain, pleasure, heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.

Heroin can look like a white or brown powder; black tar heroin is a type of heroin that is black and sticky. Heroin has many street names, including smack or hell dust. There are some other drugs that react similarly to heroin in the body, including:

  • Oxycontin
  • Vicodin

These prescriptions drugs can sometimes serve as a “gateway” to heroin use, especially if a person becomes addicted to them and builds up a tolerance, thus looking for more drugs to increase the high. And it doesn’t stop there; nearly all heroin users use at least one other drug, according to the CDC.

Dangers

Heroin can cause a rush of pleasant feelings, but at the same time it can cause disruptions in breathing. Slow and shallow breathing, falling into a coma, or dying due to heart or respiratory failure are possible, especially among those who use heroin along with other drugs or alcohol. Those who inject heroin are much more likely to develop serious viral infections, such as Hepatitis C or HIV, as well as bacterial infections of the skin, bloodstream and heart.

Warning Signs

In the beginning, warning signs might include lethargy, changes in behaviors, distancing from family and friends, a lack of coordination, and an inability to think clearly. If someone is injecting heroin, they might have bruises or needle marks. Physical effects can include constriction of the pupils, difficulty in breathing, and over time, significant weight loss. Secrecy, financial losses, stealing, and the like are often signs of long-term use.

Where to Get Help and Support

Augsburg University developed a special residential collegiate recovery program that addresses both mental health and addiction problems. Called StepUP, it uses evidence-based treatment techniques to assist students. This is the largest residential collegiate recovery program in the United States. Given its size and success, other schools, such as the University of St. Thomas, have started partnerships with StepUP so that their students can receive this treatment.

Online Resources

1

Addiction Treatment Forum: Originally launched to deal with the heroin epidemic of the 1990s, this website contains a plethora of information about how to find substance treatment programs, conferences and various online publications.

2

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Heroin Overdose Data: This site has some of the most comprehensive statistics about heroin use in the United States.

3

Coursera – The Addicted Brain: This 100% free and online course covers how addiction works within the human brain.

4

Helping Others Live Sober: Whether you’re a professional helping others or in recovery, this website provides support and information on how to live free of drugs and alcohol.

5

Narcotics Anonymous: Founded in 1953, NA is a group of individuals who share the common trait of struggling with a narcotics addiction and is a branch off of the Alcoholics Anonymous program.

Hallucinogens

A hallucinogen is a drug that can alter a person’s perception of his or her environment as well as alter the person’s feelings or thoughts. However, its recreational use in college has been overshadowed by the abuse of other drugs, such as opioids or stimulants. Despite this fact, use of hallucinogens among college students is still a major problem.

According to a 2006 study, the use of a hallucinogen, such as ecstasy, was relatively low compared to other drugs, such as marijuana. However, users of ecstasy were far more likely to have tried other illicit drugs than those who had just used marijuana. Besides ecstasy, other common hallucinogens include:

  • LSD
  • Peyote
  • Psilocybin
  • PCP
  • Ketamine

Dangers

Hallucinogens work by altering the user’s brain chemistry. This can lead to changes in how the person perceives pain, time, and the environment around them. In a controlled setting, such as a hospital, this may not be dangerous. But if the user needs to drive or walk home, they are putting themselves and others at risk of harm.

Side effects of hallucinogens include unpleasant physical feelings like nausea and trouble sleeping. But there can also be more dramatic effects such as psychosis, disorientation, anxiety, mood swings, memory loss and depression.

Warning Signs

Unlike many other commonly abused drugs, hallucinogens aren’t always the most addictive. But that doesn’t stop them from being overused or abused. Users will often build up a tolerance to many hallucinogens, requiring higher doses to achieve the equivalent result. So when someone is using higher and higher doses, or keeps switching from one hallucinogen to another, that is a strong sign that they’re abusing this drug.

Where to Get Help and Support

The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) helps facilitate the creation and operation of collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) and collegiate recovery communities (CRCs). Currently, the ARHE has 138 CRPs in operation at major colleges and universities across the country. Depending on the school, resources available at CRPs include support meetings, a special residence hall for students in recovery, and individualized recovery plans.

Online Resources

1

Go Ask Alice!: Operated by Columbia University, this website offers a wide range of information about physical and mental health issues commonly experienced by college students, including drug and alcohol issues.

2

Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs Research Report: A very comprehensive report that address various aspects of hallucinogen drug use, including how they work and how they affect the body.

3

National Drug Intelligence Center – Psilocybin Fast Facts: Offers basic background information about this hallucinogen.

4

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration – Hallucinogen: Offers a basic background into hallucinogens, including what they are and how they work.

5

What Is Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD)?: HPPD is a common adverse reaction to taking hallucinogens. This webpage explains everything there is to know about HPPD.

Insight from the Expert

Anna-Jurich

A’nna Jurich

A’nna Jurich, MS., LCPC., CRADC, is the Executive Director of the Gateway Foundation in Carbondale, Illinois.

Q. It can be really tough to ask for help when dealing with substance abuse. What are some ways students can overcome that hurdle and tell others they need help?

A. One thing students can do is to invite their peers to events that don’t include alcohol.  Often, when they speak up, they are surprised to hear they may not be the only ones feeling concerned about use.  They might also be surprised to find out that their friends are more than happy to assist.  There are also resources on campus, such as dorm Room Assistants who can provide opportunities and referrals, and there are counselors at the student wellness center on campus.  These may be confidential ways to seek more information and resources. 

Q. How can parents help their college students before they head off to college – what are some scenarios they should discuss, and what options might help keep their student safe in an environment where the “just one time” temptation can be rampant? 

A. There are lots of great online resources that help students understand warning signs and stay safe.  Parents being open to the conversation of substance use makes it much easier for students to reach out for help if needed.  Parents need to understand that students are at an age where they can make decisions to try different substances, and rather than becoming judgmental, it’s important to discuss the pros and cons and help them to make good decisions. 

Helping your student to identify safety plans prior to an event happening, especially since they will be away from home, is a great way to decrease risk if they get into a situation with substance use.  For example, always identifying someone to remain sober and ensure everyone gets home safely, setting up Uber in their phone prior to going out, and knowing where they are and where help is located before they leave for school.  Parents can also check in regularly and let their student know that they are willing to discuss these issues if needed. 

Also, talk through some of the struggles a student might face once they are on campus: they are away from friends and family that they are comfortable with, and they have to learn to structure their time to meet all of their own needs. Things like learning to manage coursework, study time, laundry, grocery shopping, etc. are all new and sometimes overwhelming events for college students. Helping students plan for and prepare decreases stress once they get on campus. 

Q. What is the most important thing a student can do for themselves as they try to stay away from that substance? 

A. Students should take care of their physical and mental health.  They need to be eating, sleeping and exercising regularly, and make sure that they have a social support network with activities they enjoy.  Managing mental health is also important.  If they feel they are beginning to struggle in any of these areas, they should reach out to a parent or support person immediately and not later.  Counseling services are available on campus and locally.

Q. Anything you’d like to add about college students and substance abuse? 

A. For many people, this is the first time away from home, where rules and boundaries may be looser and students must begin to make good decisions for themselves.  As they are meeting new people and finding activities they enjoy, substance use can become an easy way to overcome anxiety and lower inhibitions.  It can also become a way to manage feeling overwhelmed by school and missing home.  Students really need to think about when and why they are choosing to use.  Many colleges and universities have sober opportunities to meet people and engage in fun events.  Finding some of these opportunities before coming to campus is a great way to prepare for the school year.