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Addiction & Drug Use Among College Students

A student will undergo incredible changes as they leave the safety and security of their family home and arrive at college. When they arrive on campus, they can expect to gain independence, expand their knowledge, and transition into adulthood.

Alongside these opportunities, though, college students face many challenges including increased responsibilities, a new environment, and, at least at the beginning, a smaller support network. Also, they are challenged to complete their education while alcohol and other drugs are readily available.

Although substance abuse is a concern for every age group and demographic, it is especially concerning for college-aged individuals. This population experiences some of the highest levels of substance abuse, which can derail the college experience and result in addiction.

Substance Use in the College Years

Person holding up red solo cup at a club or raveAcross college campuses each day, thousands of students begin using drugs or alcohol for the first time. According to a survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) spanning 3 years (2011–2014), on an average day:1

  • 2,179 college students drank alcohol for the first time.
  • 1,326 college students used an illegal drug for the first time.
  • 1,299 college students used marijuana for the first time.
  • 901 college students used stimulants, including cocaine and methamphetamine, for the first time.
  • 649 college students used hallucinogens for the first time.
  • 559 college students used prescription pain medications for the first time.

College students are not only likely to start using a substance during these years, they are likely to continue. According to the same SAMHSA survey, of the estimated 9 million full-time college students, on an average day:1

  • 1.2 million students drank alcohol.*
  • Nearly 704,000 used marijuana.
  • Over 11,300 used cocaine.
  • Approximately 9,800 used hallucinogens.
  • Almost 4,600 used heroin.
  • More than 3,300 used inhalants.

Contributing Factors

Substance use in college is incredibly common, but why? Each person’s motivation for substance use will be unique, but there are common reasons people turn to drugs and alcohol. College students may drink or take drugs for several reasons, including:2

  • To feel good — Because drugs and alcohol can produce a feeling of euphoria, often called a “high,” people will abuse substances to experience this pleasurable sensation. Depending on the substance consumed, other effects may accompany or follow this intensely pleasurable period. For example, stimulants may invoke feelings of confidence and wakefulness, while opioids will induce feelings of relaxation.
  • To feel better — Consciously or not, some people may turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to manage stress, anxiety, and depression. This “self-medication” may relieve immediate symptoms but is likely to compound the issues in the future.
  • To do better — When people feel unable to perform mentally, socially, or athletically, they might choose to use substances, such as performance-enhancing drugs or stimulants.
  • Curiosity and desire to fit in — Experimentation, peer pressure, and a yearning to impress others lead many towards substance use. This motivation is particularly relevant to teens and young adults entering a new and potentially intimidating environment.

New Freedoms, Habits, and Pressures

College substance abuse may be as prevalent as it is due to the new freedoms that the college environment offers. As an adolescent moves towards adulthood in a college environment, students are accountable for their decisions and behaviors without the supervision of their parents, for the first time in most cases.1

Many will do well to make healthy choices that protect their mental and physical health. Others will struggle with the decreased supervision and choose to consume alcohol and drugs without any authority figure around to discourage it.

College students routinely feel new pressures on campus, both academically and socially. Other students might form habits involving substances like having a drink after the final class of the week, taking stimulants to stay up studying, or using marijuana to fall asleep at night. These habits may start innocently enough but can easily escalate with time to become compulsive behaviors.

In addition to the new freedoms, college students routinely feel new pressures on campus, both academically and socially.3 With the desire to perform well, they may use substances as a way to try and meet these demands (or cope with the pressure).

Students might also turn to alcohol or other drugs to fit in or socialize in new settings. Drugs may help them feel less anxious and improve their perceptions of how well they are being accepted by their peers.

The Most Popular Drugs on Campus

College students are a unique group, and the substances they prefer may differ somewhat from the general population. Amongst college students, the most popularly abused substances include those below.


Alcohol is the most frequently used drug by full- and part-time college students. College students are more likely to consume alcohol than all other substances combined.1

More than half of the full-time college population used alcohol in the last month, with 39% admitting to binge drinking and 13% admitting to heavy alcohol use.1 These statistics are similar for part-time students as well.1

First-year college students are at increased risk of drinking as a result of the widespread availability of alcohol and the perception that drinking alcohol is a normal behavior for a college student.3 Students may use alcohol to celebrate a success or try to boost their confidence in social situations.3


Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug among college students and trails only alcohol in terms of number of students using the drug. In a 2015 survey, 38% of all college students admitted having used the substance in the prior 12 months.4 One out of every 22 college students uses marijuana daily or nearly every day.4

College aged girl lighting a weed joint

There are two prevailing beliefs fueling marijuana use on college campuses. Many students think that:

  1. The substance is very safe. This misconception continues to spread despite the fact that many have already experienced negative outcomes from use.5
  2. Most of their peers are active users. The perception of exaggeratedly widespread use among their friends and classmates works to normalize their use. In reality, only 18% of students are active users.4


Commonly abused stimulants include:

  • Prescription medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), such as:
    • Ritalin.
    • Concerta.
    • Focalin.
    • Adderall.
  • Cocaine.
  • Amphetamines/methamphetamine.

College students attempting to get an academic leg up may reach for stimulants as a way to stay awake and study or to improve focus.6 Prescribed medications, when used as directed, can have a decidedly positive impact on those who have a real medical need, but there is no evidence to suggest non-medical stimulant use actually boosts school performance or improves grades.6

Like other myths about drug use that continue to thrive despite evidence to the contrary, the belief that stimulants are good for grades just won’t go away. And because of this misbelief, college students demonstrate a much higher rate of stimulant abuse than other groups, including young adults not attending college. For example, in 2016, about 10% of college students abused Adderall compared to only 6% of their non-college-attending peers.7


MDMA/ecstasy is a commonly abused drug among college students. Ecstasy is prevalent at events like concerts/music festivals and parties/raves. Ecstasy, in particular, is commonly perceived as a safe drug that heightens the party experience, increases the feeling of connection, and heightens the senses.8 Young adults between 18 and 25 use hallucinogens at the highest rates of any age group.9

College students seeking a “safe” drug to party with, however, may find themselves suffering side effects they didn’t expect like nausea, blurred vision, anxiety, dehydration, and heatstroke.10 Ecstasy buyers may also end up taking a different drug altogether, as there have been a number of instances of bath salts being sold as MDMA to unsuspecting users at music festivals and raves.11


Whereas abuse of many substances is increasing on campuses, the rate of opioid painkiller medication use is decreasing following a peak in 2003.12 In 2003, 8.7% of college students used a prescription painkiller, compared to 5.4% in 2012.12 While there has been some decrease in prevalence on college campuses, prescription opioid misuse continues to be a issue for the country as a whole, and is still affecting a significant number of college students. Students who do abuse opioids may do so to:12

  • Get high.
  • Alleviate pain.
  • Experiment.

Predicting College Student Substance Abuse

Accurately predicting which college students will engage in substance use is impossible, but there are characteristics that can reveal clues about which students are more likely than others to use drugs and alcohol.

These risk factors for drug use include:2

  • A history of aggression.
  • Lack of parental supervision and support.
  • Poor academic performance.
  • Mental health issues.
  • Limited social skills.
  • Past drug experimentation
  • Poor economic status.

Having many risk factors increases the odds of substance use. On the other hand, protective factors can help to mitigate the risk. Protective factors include:2

  • Self-control.
  • Strong family and peer relationships.
  • Good school performance.
  • Parental stability, support, and involvement.

To further protect students from substance abuse, colleges can institute programs to:3

  • Promote alcohol-free social, recreational, and public service activities.
  • Change the perception of college substance use as normal and common.
  • Ban the marketing and promotion of alcohol and other substances on campus.
  • Develop and consistently enforce practical punishments for students caught violating substance use policies.


On college campuses, drug-sharing is commonplace. The practice occurs when one student with a legal prescription gives, sells, or trades their medication to other students.

Person handing drugs, concept of drug sharingThe practice is so common that:12

  • More than 33% of students have sold or given away their medication.
  • Two-thirds of those diverted drugs are ADHD medications; the other 1/3 encompasses pain medications.
  • About 50% of students with a prescription for ADHD medications were approached by their peers to give, sell, or trade their medications.

Though the practice of drug-sharing may seem harmless, a person can experience very serious mental and physical health consequences when taking a medication not prescribed for them. Possible consequences include physiological dependence, overdose, and encounters with law enforcement due to the illegality of drug-sharing.

When Experimenting Goes Wrong

Use of alcohol and other drugs can result in a host of physical and mental health harms, such as:2

  • Poor decision-making.
  • Problems with coordination and increased risk of injury.
  • Problems with memory and learning.
  • Risk of infectious disease transmission.
  • Seizures.
  • Damage to organs including the:
    • Heart.
    • Kidneys.
    • Lungs.
    • Brain.
  • Death from overdose.

Abusing drugs and alcohol can also create or worsen psychiatric symptoms like low mood, depression, hallucinations, and paranoia.2,12

Alcohol use, and specifically binge drinking, carries tremendous risk to the student and the people around them. Drinking alcohol is associated with:13

  • Car crashes.
  • Drunk-driving arrests.
  • Alcohol-related physical or sexual assault.
  • Death from alcohol poisoning.

Substance abuse can threaten the academic career of the student. College students who abuse substances are more likely to:4,13

  • Miss class.
  • Fall behind in class.
  • Have lower grades.
  • Drop out of school.

Each time a substance is used, it impacts the brain; however, over time substance use can actually lead to changes in brain structure and functioning. The alterations to the brain caused by drug abuse can be long-lasting.2 Drug use during adolescence can be especially problematic because the substances can potentially have a greater impact on a still-developing brain.2

With time and repeated use, experimentation can evolve into addiction. Once addiction develops, the student will compulsively seek out and use their drug(s) of choice, regardless of the possible negative consequences, such as failure in school.2

Addiction Treatment for Young Adults

If you suspect you or a student you care about is abusing drugs and may have a problem, check this list of signs and symptoms of a substance use disorder:14

  • Craves the substance
  • Tries to quit but returns to using
  • Often uses substances more often or for longer durations than intended
  • Spends a lot of time recovering from use (e.g., hangovers, diminished sleep)
  • Has increased conflict with their family and friends
  • Struggles to maintain responsibilities at home, work, or school

Students with substance use issues also often develop significant levels of drug tolerance and physical dependence.15

  • Tolerance is a state in which the user’s body has become accustomed to a dose and needs the drug in higher amounts and/or more often to get the desired effect.
  • Dependence is when the body requires the substance to feel well.

When someone who is physically dependent on a substance suddenly stops use, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms will emerge.15

If you or your loved one can’t stop using drugs or alcohol, professional addiction treatment is always the best option. When the student receives a thorough evaluation, the mental health or addiction professional can recommend an appropriate level of care to treat symptoms of withdrawal, establish sobriety, uncover triggers of use, and avoid relapse in the future.15

A student enduring strong withdrawal symptoms may need to undergo a period of detoxification before other forms of treatment can proceed. Professional detox involves a set of interventions, each administered to improve the safety and comfort of the individual during withdrawal. Based on the severity of physiological dependence, the type of substance being abused, and other specific needs of the individual, detox can take place in either an inpatient or outpatient setting. People addicted to alcohol, sedatives, and opioids are commonly advised to seek professional help during this period.

Beyond the detoxification phase, ongoing addiction recovery programs may be conducted in a variety of settings and treatment intensities, including:15,16

  • Inpatient/residential. If the student requires a high level of supervision and care to manage mental or physical health symptoms, this type of program could be the best fit. In these settings, the student will live at the treatment center to establish a safe environment and focus on their recovery.
  • Outpatient treatments offer a less intensive level of care, which may be more appropriate for people with fewer serious symptoms and a supportive community they can lean on. Outpatient treatments can involve many hours of treatment daily or only one hour per week. All outpatient programs allow the student to sleep at home each night and attend classes to maintain their normal routine.

Students, adolescents, and young adults can benefit from many styles of treatment, including:17

  • Individual therapy.
  • Group therapy.
  • Family therapy.
  • Self-help/12-step groups.

It is important to note that, for some adolescents, group therapy or self-help groups carry the risk of encouraging substance use by emphasizing the perceived benefits of the substance.17 The group leader should monitor and manage the sessions to avoid this trend.

While college substance use is common, it is certainly not a requirement or a rite of passage for every student. Drug and alcohol abuse takes a major toll, even on the young. If you’re addicted and don’t know where to turn, reach out to us today. You don’t have to live with addiction. We can help you find the treatment you need to return to a sober life and find success in college and throughout your life after school.