Alcohol and Other Drug Use

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College is an exciting time of independence, exploring opportunities, meeting new friends, and trying new things. Some of these experiences may include making decisions about alcohol and drugs. Upon entering college, some students have never tried alcohol or drugs. Other students may have experimented or used often prior to college.

Attitudes toward alcohol and drugs can be shaped by your own personal values and beliefs, as well as those of your family, friends, and larger community. It is important to keep in mind that your cultural values and beliefs surrounding alcohol and drug use will interact with the larger college culture.

Use of alcohol and drugs affects most college students, even if you have decided not to use personally, and it is important to have the information and support necessary to navigate this aspect of college life.

Reasons College Students May Use

College students may use alcohol or drugs for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common reasons include:

Relax and Reduce Stress. Adjusting to college can cause a range of emotions and introduce new stressors. The most common reason given by college students for using alcohol and drugs is to alleviate stress and forget about problems.

Fit in Socially. College students may experience peer pressure or have the impression that “everyone is doing it.” In fact, there are many college students who chose not to use alcohol and drugs. According to the 2017 Monitoring for the Future: National Study on Drug Trends, 24 percent of college students reported never using alcohol and 62 percent never using marijuana.

Alleviate Negative Feelings. Alcohol and drugs are often used in an attempt to feel better and self-medicate negative emotions or mental health concerns.

Reduce Inhibitions. Students may use alcohol and drugs to help ease discomfort in new social or sexual situations.

Enhance Concentration and Alertness. Some students believe that certain drugs will increase productivity and enhance academic performance, but a 2017 study in Frontiers in Psychology shows that drug use actually lowers GPA.

Risk Factors for Misuse

Several factors contribute to alcohol and drug use by students in the college environment.

Availability. Alcohol and drugs are often easily accessible through friends, at parties, or by going to bars and clubs.

Limited Interactions with parents and older adults. Increased independence and distance from home allows students to make many decisions for the first time. Some of these decisions might be risky or potentially harmful.

Academic Expectations and Stress. Students are often under a significant amount of pressure and may use alcohol and/or drugs as a way to de-stress.

Mental Health. Many college students experience mental health concerns and may turn to alcohol and drugs to cope.

Social Pressure. Friends and others can encourage and normalize drinking and drug use. This is especially common at schools with strong fraternity and sorority systems. Students often underestimate the number of peers who choose not to use.

Unstructured Time. College students often have more flexible schedules than when they were in high school. Students who are not involved in recreational or volunteer opportunities are more likely to use alcohol and drugs.

Consequences of Use

While students often place greater emphasis on the positive aspects of alcohol and drug use, there is also significant risk of negative outcomes.

Academic Problems. Alcohol and drug use in college is associated with lower grade point averages, suspensions, falling behind in schoolwork, missing classes, and spending less time studying.

Risky Sexual Behavior. Students who use alcohol and drugs report greater incidence of unplanned sexual activity and unprotected sex.

Sexual Assault. Alcohol use by the survivor and/or perpetrator is a reported factor in 50 percent of sexual assault cases. Alcohol and drug use also present issues with gaining consent before sexual activity.

Legal System Involvement. Use of alcohol and drugs puts students at increased risk of experiencing legal consequences, often due to violence and vandalism.

Health. Students whouse alcohol and drug report lower ratings of their general health and are at risk of overdose and possibly death. Also, alcohol and drug use often has a negative effect on mental health and can be a risk factor for suicide.

Warning Signs and Questions to Ask Yourself

A question often asked by students is, “When is my (or a friend’s) use of alcohol or drugs a problem?“ The following questions can help you to evaluate alcohol and drug use.

Negative consequences. Does your alcohol and drug use continue despite causing academic, legal, health, financial, or relationship problems?

Personality changes. Does your personality change in ways you are uncomfortable with when using alcohol or drugs? For example, do you become mean or abusive, excessively friendly, or take risks that you would not otherwise?

Neglecting responsibilities. Are you absent or late for classes, meetings, or appointments due to alcohol or drug use?

Preoccupation. Do you frequently think about using alcohol or drugs? Do you give up activities which don’t involve your drug of choice? Do you avoid socializing with friends who don’t use?

Denial and Minimizing. Do you justify or downplay your alcohol or drug use in order to characterize it as acceptable, despite problems?

Accidents, Injuries, or Illness.  Do you experience accidents, injuries, or fights while engaging in alcohol and drug use? Do you find that your general health has been negatively affected by use?

Tolerance or Withdrawal. Does using the amount of alcohol or drugs that you used to have in the past have less of an effect or you need to use more to get the desired effect? Do you experience sickness or discomfort when you stop using? 

Ways to Manage Use

If you are concerned that your (or a friend’s) use of alcohol or drugs may be a problem, there are ways to begin making changes.  

Track Your Use. Keep track of when and how much you are using. Journaling, noting use on a calendar, or using drink tracking apps can raise awareness of using behaviors and ways to modify.

Make a Plan. Set limits surrounding how much and how often you will use in advance. For example, commit to limiting your drug use to once a week or alcohol use to 3 drinks per occasion. Consider sharing your plan with a friend to help keep you accountable.

Take a Break. Abstaining from alcohol or drug use for even a short time can be cleansing for the mind and body and create new awareness surrounding the benefits of not using.

Engage in Self-Care. Explore and make time for what helps you feel fulfilled. Self-care includes an array of activities that are positive for well-being and bring feelings of pleasure such as exercise, trying new foods, meditation, getting a massage, or taking a walk.

Alcohol and Drug-Free Activities. College life is full of opportunities to get involved in activities that do not include alcohol and drug use. Contact student organizations, volunteer, learn a new language, be a mentor, attend sporting events, or visit a gallery. 

Reach Out for Support. It is helpful to have someone to talk to when evaluating changes in your life. A friend of family member can provide understanding, encouragement, and accountability. Often we will need to be proactive in creating this support system. This system can include friends, family, self-help groups, and/or professional counselors.  

Want to Know More?

American College Health Association (ACHA),

Binge Drinking.

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA),

Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol and Your Health,

The Science of Addiction. Life Noggin.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA),