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Substance Abuse in College Students

Learn more about the effects of substance abuse in college students, types of drugs used, and available treatment options.

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Common Addiction in Young People

College is a time of growth and self-discovery, and it is also the first time many young adults venture away from home and discover independence. Unfortunately for many new college students, this can quickly become overwhelming, leading some to turn to substance use to cope with stress and other mental health challenges.

Although trends change yearly, with some substances declining in use while others are increasing, several remain popular among college students nationwide.1

Substance Abuse in College Students


Drinking is considered socially acceptable for college students. Alcohol can be easy to obtain on a college campus, and as a result, alcohol is linked to many substance-related problems on college campuses. In a 2015 study, three in five full-time, college-aged students reported binge drinking.2


As legislation changes nationwide, making marijuana use legal in many states, college students turn to it as their drug of choice. Because marijuana, also known as cannabis, weed, or pot, is now legal to possess under the age of 21, some campuses have seen weed used more than alcohol and other illicit drugs.


College students often use drugs like Adderall and Ritalin as study aids. Because these drugs have an energy-producing effect, students believe using them, even without a prescription, will help them meet academic deadlines.


Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant drug. Whether due to exposure, the desire to fit in with fellow students, or facing pressure to use drugs, a college student may be vulnerable to cocaine use. Other students may turn to cocaine to deal with overwhelming stress or circumstances that seem out of control.

One study indicated that 69% of users started using cocaine after beginning college. Between year one and year four of college, the lifetime prevalence of cocaine use more than tripled, from 4% to 13%.3


Benzodiazepines, also called “benzos,” “downers,” and “tranks,” are responsible for claiming the lives of 38,329 Americans in recent years. College benzodiazepine abuse is a significant part of this problem. Over five million college students have overdosed on prescription drugs—31% due to benzodiazepine abuse.4


Ecstasy is generally considered a “club drug,” as its effects on users produce heightened euphoric sensations and increased pleasure. For these reasons, ecstasy is commonly used at college parties, raves, and clubs.

Why Students Turn to Drugs?

Several factors contribute to elevated rates of substance abuse in students. These factors will be detailed below.5


New life stressors, such as internships, part-time jobs, coursework demands, and social obligations lead many to use drugs or alcohol to cope and reduce anxiety.

Peer Pressure

New experiences and new social groups surround college students. Sometimes, these groups consist of others who begin to experiment with performance-enhancing or recreational drugs, leading people around them to try those substances to remain part of the social circle.


College students quickly want to explore newfound freedoms and want to learn more about life outside of their childhood homes and restrictions. It is not uncommon for self-exploration and curiosity to lead to drug experimentation.

Academic Pressure

The difference between high school academic expectations and those placed on first-year college students cannot be understated. Students may quickly find college is dramatically different. More and more students turn to stimulants like Adderall to help them stay awake long enough to complete their assignments by their due dates or study for tests. Typically, these drugs are obtained without a prescription.

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction

With all the changes you are likely to see in young adults as they explore college, knowing which differences may signal a serious concern, such as excessive drinking, alcoholism, or cocaine addiction, can be challenging.

A few things you can watch for that may indicate substance abuse in students include:

  • Increased isolation
  • From friends and social groups
  • Lack of interest in hobbies or activities
  • A notable change in usual social groups
  • Mood swings
  • Fluctuating energy levels
  • Changes in academic performance

Dangers of Drug Use in Students

There are many consequences of substance abuse in college-aged students. Aside from the social and emotional challenges related to excessive drinking and getting high on various drugs, there are also a variety of negative physical effects. Mortality, physical and sexual assaults, and overdose are all common and dangerous challenges related to substance abuse and students.

    What is Binge Drinking?

    According to research released by the National Institutes for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, over 26% of people over age eighteen reported binge drinking in the past month. One of the most common alcohol-related problems that affect people of all ages is binge drinking. Binge drinking is “a harmful amount of alcohol in one session of drinking.”6

    What constitutes a harmful amount of alcohol will vary based on gender, type of alcohol, and the size of the drink. For females, binge drinking is four or more standard drinks in one sitting, and for males, it is five or more, with a sitting being a window of two hours or less.

    What is a Standard Drink?

    It is also essential to address the phrase “standard drink,” as it means different things depending on the type of alcohol. Both beer and wine coolers are typically 5% alcohol. One standard drink is a twelve-ounce container. Malt liquor is usually around 7% alcohol; therefore, a standard drink is seven to eight ounces. Spirits such as gin, brandy, vodka, or whiskey are typically eighty-proof and contain about 40% alcohol. A standard drink (or shot) for these drinks is 1.5 fluid ounces.

    What are the Risks?

    The risks of excessive and binge drinking go well beyond getting drunk. Someone who binge drinks frequently is at an increased risk for several physical, emotional, and legal problems. A few examples include:

    • High blood pressure
    • Vehicles accidents and injuries
    • Harming or killing someone else
    • Legal consequences of underage drinking or driving under the influence
    • Alcohol poisoning (sometimes called alcohol overdose)
    • Developing alcoholism or a drug use disorder

    Getting Back On Track

    Acknowledging an unhealthy relationship with substances is a vital first step toward recovery and sobriety. It is also a challenging step for many college students to make. For some, the “everyone is doing it” mentality makes it very difficult to see the potential dangers of substance abuse. Choosing a rehabilitation program or facility for college students can help you take your first steps toward recovery.

    Getting help at a program specializing in the needs of college students means you will be surrounded by others who understand and share similar challenges. When you have a strong peer support structure, sharing your struggles and victories experienced as part of your recovery journey becomes more manageable.

    Substance Abuse in College Students

    Rehabilitation at Great Oaks Recovery

    Regardless of your mental health or addiction challenges, our caring and compassionate team of providers at Great Oaks Recovery are here to help. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you find freedom from addiction.

    Questions About Treatment?

    Our knowledgeable team is ready to discuss your situation and options. Your call is confidential with no obligation required.