College Students: Mental Health & Addiction

Posted by Jackson Bentley on Oct 4, 2018 8:00:00 AM
Jackson Bentley
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College students are one of the highest risk demographics for developing a substance use disorder. The stress of maintaining a social life, performing well in class, coping with separation anxiety, and possibly having to work part-time can make college more difficult than many people realize. In this context, many college students may find themselves faced with the onset of mental health and substance abuse problems for the first time in their life. Given that this period of time is one of the most critical junctures in a person’s life, there is a pressing need to make sure that resources are available to help college students. Here are some startling statistics about mental health and substance use among college students:


  • Annually, 100,000 college students are the victim of sexual assault.


  • Annually, 700,000 college students are assaulted by another student with alcohol involved.


  • Annually, roughly 1800 college students die from alcohol-related causes



  • Of those college students who are currently enrolled in a collegiate recovery program, the exact mental disorder diagnoses were broken down as follows:
    • Unipolar Depression 74%
    • Anxiety Disorder 48%
    • Bipolar Disorder 23%


Prevalence of Mental Health Problems

The prevalence of mental health problems may be due to the fact the college can be a challenging and stressful time in life. Traditional college students come from high school and may be living in an entirely different state to attend college. They are young, inexperienced, and may depend on their parents for financial support. Thus, with the addition of academic load, more adult responsibilities, and acclimating to a new environment, college students find themselves overwhelmed and in need of support. For this with diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health problems, the stress can be too much.


Mental health problems are quite common among college students. One 12-month study found that nearly half of college-age individuals have had some sort of psychiatric disorder in the past year, including anxiety disorders, depression, substance use disorders, and bipolar disorders. The prevalence among this age demographic is high compared to all other age groups but is actually higher for those not attending college. The only area where college students are at a higher risk is for having an alcohol use disorder. Overall, however, less than 25% of individuals in this age demographic who were diagnosed with a mental disorder sought treatment.


This stage in life is likely a high-risk period of time because most mental health disorders have their peak during the onset of young adulthood. According to research, 75% of those who will have a mental health disorder which actually experience early onset symptoms by the age of 25. College is a time of great change and significant disruption to someone’s environment and routine, which could exacerbate any symptoms of mental health disorders. One of the most prevalent psychiatric disorders among college students is anxiety, which afflicts roughly 12% of this population, usually manifest as social phobia, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.


One national mental health survey of over 6,600 college students found that the mean age of onset for an obsessive-compulsive disorder was 19 while the mean age onset for generalized anxiety disorder was 20. Another common mental health problem among college students is depression, with as many as 7 - 9% of students experiencing some form. In the 2016 National Comorbidity Survey, results showed that one out of every five individuals with depression had their first episode by the age of 25. Suicide, while not a mental health diagnosis, is still closely correlated to mental health issues. Suicide is currently the third leading cause of death among young adults and is a problem amongst college students. In a large survey of over 8,000 students, nearly 7% reported suicidal ideation, nearly 2% reported having a suicide plan, and 0.5% reported making at least one suicide attempt in the past year.


Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating are common disorders that have their onset during early adulthood, with college being a particularly high-risk period. In a national survey, 9.5% of college students qualified for having an eating disorder, averaged between males and females, who reported 3.6% and 13.5% respectively. This same survey found that the peak years of early onset symptoms was 18 - 20. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder tends to manifest in early childhood, lasting well into adulthood and impacting work and school life. Between 2 - 8% of college students report suffering from ADHD, which is associated with poor academic performance, social difficulties, and increased risk for alcohol and drug use. These problems can significantly impair someone’s collegiate performance.


Research is limited, but findings have shown that some symptoms in the psychotic spectrum are not uncommon among college students. Schizophrenia, in particular, is known to manifest during early adulthood. One study of 270 schizophrenic patients found that for all individuals, there was a rapid increase in the onset of schizophrenia symptoms in the late teens and early twenties. Young adults in college who may not even realize they have schizophrenia could develop symptoms while in college for the first time. One survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 47% of adults living with schizophrenia drop out college compared to 27% for the rest of the population. The breakdown of mental health diagnosis is as follows:


  • Anxiety Disorder: 12%
  • Depression: 7 - 9%
  • Bipolar Disorder: 3.2%
  • Suicidal Ideation: - 6.7%
  • Eating Disorder: - 9.5%
  • ADHD: 2 - 8%


As we do a better job of increasing recognition of mental health issues among college students, we must accompany it with additional support for the services and counseling options that help these students. In one survey of over 270 institutions, 88% of campus counselor directors reported an increase in severe psychological problems over the previous 5 years being reported by students, including diagnoses of learning disabilities, self-injury, eating disorders, substance use, and sexual assaults. This rise shows an increased need for counseling and services that help students with mental health disorders, yet there has not been a sizable response in increasing access to these types of programs.


Prevalence of Substance Use Disorders

It’s well known that alcohol and illicit drug use tends to peak during young adulthood (18 - 25) and slowly declines with age. For college students, approximately one in five meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder. Of special concern is the frequency with which college students engage in binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks within a 2 hour period, and nearly half (44%) of college students binge drink. 20% of this group report engaging in this type of behavior frequently.


Binge drinking is especially harmful to the developing brain and is one of the biggest public health hazards in the United States. In fact, among college students, binge drinking alcohol is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. College students who drink heavily are at increased risk for motor vehicle accidents, sexual assault, poor academic performance, accidental injury, and early mortality. Furthermore, they risk impairments to the brain, especially in areas related to memory formation and attention.


Many college students who start by binge drinking continue to display signs of substance abuse problems after college. Nicotine use is also quite common among college students, with 22 - 40% of this age group (18 - 25) meeting the criteria for dependency. Approximately 1 in 20 students meet the criteria for drug use disorder in the United States, with marijuana being the most prevalent narcotic used behind alcohol. One study on college entrants found that 30% of those entering college admitted to using marijuana before arriving on campus. This same study found that 23.5% of male students and 16% of female students are current marijuana smokers.


Marijuana use has been associated with poorer cognitive performance on memory and achievement motivation, which are two factors that can seriously impact a person’s academic performance while in college. Among college students, it is not uncommon for binge drinking and marijuana use to co-occur. College students who binge drink are more than ten times as likely to use marijuana than those who drink occasionally or do not drink at all. Data from the National College Health Risk Behavior Survey found that lifetime use of marijuana was nine times more likely among students who binge drink.


Another problem among college students is the abuse of prescription medication. Drugs like caffeine, Adderall, Ritalin, and other stimulant drugs are extremely popular with college students. Students in the 18-24 range typically believe themselves capable of “burning the candle at both ends.” For that reason, they may feel comfortable running their bodies into the ground through the use of stimulant drugs that help them complete coursework and maintain a social life. Studies on the prevalence of medication misuse among college students found that the most common medications misused include opioids, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines. Nearly 35% of college students have misused prescription stimulants at some point in their college careers, with the highest likelihood occurring among Caucasian males with lower grade point averages and those who are enrolled in fraternities and sororities. Another study assessed 1,253 college students and found that by year four, more than 60% of students had been offered a prescription stimulant at least once and almost one third had used them for non-medical purposes.


In the past 20 years, overdose rates involving prescription drugs, especially painkillers, has skyrocketed. Mixing prescription painkillers with any other type of narcotic makes the risk of overdose much higher, but it appears that many college students may not be concerned about the potential consequences of doing this. One 2010 survey found that a majority of college students surveyed were alright with mixing prescription medications with alcohol.


Collegiate Recovery Programs

It’s difficult for college students to find the support and services they would need to stay sober and successful in their college careers. However, a national movement is underway to instate the correct programs and services to support college students and help them avoid falling into substance abuse behavior. Collegiate Recovery Programs aim to create an environment that supports sobriety in college campuses, in other words, a collegiate recovery community.


The college lifestyle isn’t exactly the most conducive to sobriety, what with football games, Greek life, parties, and high-stress academics, but CRP’s are spreading across campuses everywhere. Some students may be exposed to substance use for the first time, or they may be returning to college after a hiatus involving some form of rehab from substance abuse. Either way, the susceptible population of potential addicts needs some extra support to thrive in the college environment. Today there are more than 150 Collegiate Recovery Programs in place across the nation. Collegiate Recovery Programs help students through the use of:


  • Inclusive celebrations and holidays festivities
  • Mental Health Counseling
  • Support Groups
  • Weekly Dinners
  • Substance Abuse Therapy
  • Academic Tutoring
  • Study Groups
  • Meditation
  • Peer Support
  • Professional Development



An infographic describing different collegiate recovery programs.



Sober Housing Considerations

Many college campuses provide specialty sober dorms for students that would like to stay away from illicit substances. Currently, at least 50 campuses across the nation offer sober on-campus housing where no alcohol or drugs are allowed. It is already illegal for students to consume these substances, but some colleges don’t make it illegal to possess materials while on campus. Schools that don’t allow this are known as dry campuses, and even the possession of drugs or alcohol can result in serious consequences.


The need for specialty housing to help those in recovery is extremely important. One of the first things that recovering addicts learn in recovery is to avoid the environments, peoples, and activists that may trigger them to relapse. In college, students return to their dorms to decompress from the rigors of class and spend time with friends. In many residence halls, students have to return to their peers partying with alcohol and weed. For someone in recovery or someone who does not party, trying to relax in a sober environment could be nearly impossible without the inclusion of sober dormitories.


Sober dorms help not only those in recovery but they also the help the overall school. Students do not necessarily need to be in recovery to live in a sober dormitory. For example, they could have religious obligations that prohibit them from engaging in substance use, or they could have athletic requirements that don’t allow them to binge drink or take harmful substances. When colleges provide access to sober housing options for students, they open the door for more demographics to attend their school. Plus, when students visit their friends in dry dorms, they get a chance to see the upsides of living and having fun in an environment that doesn’t require substance use.


In Conclusion

If you or a loved one are a college student who is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, there is no reason to face it alone. If your school does not provide addiction treatment services or support, there are residential and outpatient treatment centers available to assist you in achieving a sober, successful life. At Landmark Recovery, our addiction specialists are here to provide structured support, peer group therapy sessions, medication-assisted treatment, and extensive alumni programs.



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Topics: Addiction

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