College students are at risk for developing addictions. While onset of addiction can occur at various points across the lifespan, a unique series of risk factors leave college students especially prone to alcoholism, illicit substance abuse, and misuse of prescription drugs.
In particular, college students drink large quantities of alcohol. In one study, two out of five college students met the qualifications of heavy drinkers, meaning at some point in the past two weeks they drank five or more drinks in a row.[i] Each year, 37% of college students use at least one illicit drug, and 19% of college students use an illicit drug that isn’t marijuana.[ii] College students are also known for misusing prescription stimulants, with 6.9% of college students stating they used them for nonmedical reasons such as for a study aid.[iii]
Where do these high levels of substance use come from? A number of factors leave college students especially prone to falling into these addictive behaviors.
- Sudden decrease in parental involvement.
When parents are closely involved in day to day life, their children are less likely to be influenced by peer pressure to drink alcohol.[iv] College represents a time when the close monitoring that happened during high school comes to an end. It turns out that a parent’s disapproval actually does matter. New freedom and space from this disapproval leave college students prone to addictions
- Peer influence.
College students are away from their parent’s disapproval at the same time that peer influence picks up. College students are influenced through observing a culture in which substance use is constantly modeled around them.[v] Nobody wants to be the odd man out. Many students start drinking and using substances simply because this is the campus culture.Not only is substance use seen as the norm, but a variety of substances are more readily available than before. College students are directly offered alcohol and other substances more often than they were in high school.[vi]
- Experimenting with study aids.
College classwork is much harder than high school academic work. Students begin to worry more about their grades and how they are performing in their classes, which leads to the use of stimulants as study aids.
College can be stressful. Not only are academics harder, but social and relationship problems become more complex. In addition, many college students deal with stressful mental illnesses and environmental stressors. Use of alcohol and illicit substances are often used to avoid stress. A high percentage of college aged people cite that one of the main reasons they use substances is to help them relax.[vii]
- Fraternities and Sororities.
Students who join a fraternity or sorority in college are especially prone to addiction.[viii] The culture of Greek life leads many students to binge on alcohol and abuse various substances.
Students on their way to college should know these factors and consider what they can do to avoid addiction. This might include finding other ways to manage stress, developing healthy study habits, making friends with the right crowd of people, and staying in contact with parents and healthy adult role models.
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[i] O’Malley, P. M. & Johnston, L. D. (2002). Epidemiology of alcohol and other drug use among American college students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
[ii] Palmer, R. S., McMahon, T. J., Moreggi, D. I., Rounsaville, B. J., & Ball, S. A. (2012). College student drug use: Patterns, concerns, consequences, and interest in intervention. Journal of College Student Development, 53(1).
[iii] McCabe, S. E., Knight, J. R., Teter, C. J., Wechsler, H. (2005). Non-medical use of prescription stimulants among US college students: Prevalence and correlates from a national survey. Addiction, 100(1), 96-106.
[iv] Wood, M. D., Read, J. P, Mitchell, R. E., & Brand, N. H. (2004). Do parents still matter? Parent and peer influences on alcohol involvement among recent high school graduates. Psychology of Addictive Behavior, 18(1), 19-30.
[v] Read, J. P., Woods, M. D., & Capone, C. (2005). A prospective investigation of relations between social influences and alcohol involvement during the transition into college. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 66(1), 23-34.
[vi] Read, J. P., Woods, M. D., & Capone, C. (2005). A prospective investigation of relations between social influences and alcohol involvement during the transition into college. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 66(1), 23-34.
[vii] Boys, A., Marsden, J., Strang, J. (2001). Understanding reasons for drug use amongst young people: A functional perspective. Health Education Research, 16(4), 457-469.
[viii] McCabe, S. E., Schulenberg, J. E, Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Kloska, D. D. (2004). Selection and socialization effects of fraternities and sororities on US college student substance use: A multi-cohort national longitudinal study. Society for the Study of Addiction, 100, 512-524