For many young people, college is an important rite of passage into adulthood. Movies and books paint the college years as a time of adventure, hard work, and new relationships. But for some, the stress of college life can lead to struggles with mental illness. The adolescent brain makes a big leap in development before the age of 25. Sometimes, this development triggers previously undiagnosed mental health issues. The stress of leaving home and other adult responsibilities may lead to depression, anxiety, or even substance abuse.1 Being aware of potential mental health concerns during the college years can help you or a loved one get the right treatment.

“I first realized I had a problem with prescription pills when I was 21 years old and started taking prescription opiates for non-medical reasons. At the time, I was in my last semester of college and studying for the GMAT’s. I had plans to go to graduate school and obtain an MBA so it was important to do well on this exam. I was pressuring myself and future-tripping so much that the opiates truly helped take the stress away and provide calm and peace in my life…” — Lara F., HeroesInRecovery.com

Substance Abuse in College

Substance use in college is a serious issue. Underage drinking, binge drinking at parties and drinking while taking drugs can lead to accidental overdose, sexual assault and death.

Substance use in college is a serious issue. Underage drinking, binge drinking at parties and drinking while taking drugs can lead to accidental overdose, sexual assault and death. Many college students, like Lara F., use substances as a way to cope with increased performance pressure. Coping in this way can quickly turn into alcohol dependence and addiction. For example, if a student goes out to drink in order to cope with a stressful schedule and workload, the drinking may become a habit. Over time and with continued use, the student feels as if he or she cannot make it through projects or exams without alcohol.

Alcohol and drug use while in college can also trigger undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. Those with a family history of addiction or addiction with mental illness are at increased risk.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

  • In 2015, 26.9 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month; 7.0 percent reported that they engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month.
  • 15.1 million adults ages 18 and older (6.2 percent of this age group) had alcohol use disorder. This includes 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women
  • About 1.3 million adults received treatment for AUD at a specialized facility in 2015 (8.3 percent of adults who needed treatment). This included 898,000 men (8.8 percent of men who needed treatment) and 417,000 women (7.5 percent of women who needed treatment).2

These statistics show the prevalence of alcohol abuse among college age students. Learning to identify those who suffer from alcohol use disorders, substance abuse and mental illness can help get young people the treatment they need.

Signs and Symptoms of Mental Illness

When it comes to dealing with the stress of college, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that:

  • One fourth of all college students have a diagnosable mental health condition. As much as 40% never seek help for their conditions
  • Half of college students have experienced severe (and treatable) anxiety that impairs schoolwork
  • Eighty percent of college students feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of school and life
  • Only seven percent of parents reported concerns about their child’s mental health to others 3

Conditions such as depression, ADHD, eating disorders, substance use disorders and anxiety may start small and grow over time. More serious conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often begin in the late teen years or the early twenties and often seem to come on suddenly. It is important to remember that almost all mental health conditions are treatable.

If you suspect a friend or loved one is struggling with mental illness, look for the following symptoms:

  • Changes in sleeping habits, such as inability to sleep or stay asleep, or oversleeping
  • Overeating or under eating to the point of impacting physical health
  • Changes in relationships or ability to maintain friendships
  • Illegal use, misuse, or over-use of alcohol, marijuana, drugs, or other substances
  • Changes in ability to function at school or work
  • Feelings of anger, hopelessness, or severe anxiety
  • Paranoia, or seeing or hearing things that other people cannot see or hear
  • Memories or mental images of past trauma that feel overwhelming4

If any of these symptoms are present, seek medical attention immediately.

Finding Help for Substance Abuse

For those in college, substance use disorders often start while trying to cope with a mental health issue. Quality addiction treatment focuses on building coping skills, community, knowledge, and assessing for any co-occurring mental health concerns. Dual Diagnosis facilities treat both substance abuse and mental health conditions simultaneously in a supportive, non-judgmental environment. If you or your loved one struggles with mental illness or substance abuse, we are here for you. Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.


1 Biolchini, Amy “U-M experts: Brain development, stress put college students at higher risk for depression.” AnnArbor.com. N.p., 27 Feb. 2013. Web. 10 July 2017.

2Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 10 July 2017.

3Top 5 Mental Health Challenges Facing College Students.” Best Colleges. N.p., 07 June 2017. Web. 10 July 2017.

4 Henriques, Gregg. “The College Student Mental Health Crisis.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 15 Feb. 2014. Web. 10 July 2017.