By Christa Banister

College is an exciting time in any young person’s life, a snapshot of moments jam-packed with exciting milestones and newfound freedom.

Maybe you finally get the pink highlights your parents weren’t so excited about. Your first tattoo. Perhaps, you try Indian food, travel somewhere new for Spring Break or test the merits of the opposing viewpoint in a political debate. The common denominator is you’re spreading your wings and figuring out who you are apart from your family.

Naturally, experimentation isn’t always positive. While college students have probably heard some version of “just say no” in the past and have likely been exposed to (or used) illicit drugs and alcohol at some point in high school, the pressure to say “yes” in college is amplified by the lack of regular parental input, a party atmosphere (particularly on weekends), peer pressure and the sheer availability of everything from beer to marijuana to prescription medication, opioids and beyond.

After hitting a recent low of 34 percent in 2006, use of any illicit drug by college students, particularly marijuana, has been steadily on the rise to a three-decade high of 43 percent in 2016.1 Just the year before, 26.9 percent of college students owned up to binge drinking in the past month (four drinks in about two hours for women, five for men), while seven percent admit to heavy drinking in the past month, which is characterized by drinking five or more days in the past month.2

Happy friends on the beach

Breaking It All Down

While alcohol and marijuana are still the most common substances abused on college campuses, there’s been a recent uptick in cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy and prescription medicine in particular. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 100 people die from drug overdoses on a daily basis in the United States, with the majority falling under the prescription drug umbrella.

Over-the-counter medicines such as Nyquil, cough medicines containing dextromethorphan (DXM) and countless others are also being abused with more than one in 10 teenagers admitting to downing pills or gulping an entire bottle of medicine for a temporary buzz. While this practice can cause plenty of problems including dizziness, loss of motor skills and nausea on its own, it’s even worse when they’re mixed with another kind of substance, which is a common practice.

Drugs and alcohol are also a major part of many colleges’ socialization process, something that freshman in particular should be aware of. Whether it’s part of the initiation process (hazing) for a fraternity, sorority or sports team or a regular part of a social club’s itinerary, alcohol and drug abuse is rarely monitored and can lead to accidents, poisoning and, in some cases, even death.

Knowing the Risks

While the toll that drugs and alcohol take on a college student’s body are frightening enough (think impairment of the brain and liver, reduced alertness and a slew of other unpleasant maladies), it’s easy to forget the other consequences that come with alcohol and substance abuse.

More than 1,825 college students ages 18-24 die from unintentional injuries, including car crashes, while a staggering 696,000 have reported assaults from someone who has been drinking. Another 97,000 have experienced sexual assault or date rape that was alcohol related, and one in four college students have faced academic consequences for overuse of alcohol and other drugs including poor scores on exams, falling behind in class and earning far lower grades.

How to Recognize an Addiction

According to a report in USA Today, nearly 23 percent of college students meet the criteria for drug or alcohol dependency, so it’s important to recognize the signs and start treatment as early as possible.3

While it’s easy to dismiss recreational drug use and drinking as merely “part of the college experience,” there’s a juncture where the so-called fun becomes downright dangerous. If someone’s appearance or normal behavior has shifted dramatically, that’s a sign. If your friend is suddenly getting in trouble, skipping class regularly or withdrawing from student and social life, that’s also worth noting. Maybe you notice that you or someone you care about isn’t sleeping, has dramatic mood swings, engages in reckless behavior or, well, you see where we’re going here.

Don’t underestimate any of these signs because it’s quite possible you could be saving your life or the life of someone you care about.

If you or a friend struggles with drug or alcohol abuse, help is always available. Call us anytime for a free assessment.


1Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use.” The National Institute of Health, January 2016.

2Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, June 2017.

3 Leinwand, Donna. “College Drug Use, Binge Drinking Rise.” USA Today, March 15, 2007.