Signs a Student May Have a Substance Abuse Issue

For some students, more time is spent in school than at home. Knowing the signs of substance abuse can save a life.

Signs a Student May Have a Substance Abuse Issue

(Photo: Stepan Popov, Adobe Stock)

Adolescents start using drugs for a variety of reasons. For example, they may want to impress peers, boost energy, ease stress, or self-medicate mental health conditions like social anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

Over time, drug use can cause serious health problems, including addiction. As a campus safety professional, you can protect your students’ health by learning the signs of substance abuse.

Substance abuse occurs when someone uses a substance in a way that threatens their health. Commonly abused substances among young people include:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Illicit stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine
  • Prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin
  • Opioids like heroin, codeine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone
  • Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Klonopin and Valium
  • Hallucinogens like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and MDMA
  • Inhalants like paint thinners, glue, gasoline, and nitrous oxide

Continued substance abuse can lead to addiction. Also called substance use disorder, addiction is a serious disease that makes you feel unable to control your drug use. The most common symptoms of addiction are tolerance and physical dependence. Tolerance means you need increasingly higher doses of the substance to feel the desired effects. Physical dependence means your body relies on the substance to function normally. If you stop using it, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, sweating, or seizures.

How to Tell If a Student Has a Substance Abuse Issue

If an adolescent has a substance abuse issue, you may notice emotional, social, and physical signs. These signs don’t always mean a student is abusing drugs but they are something to keep an eye out for as substance use among adolescents isn’t uncommon.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • By 12th grade, 2/3 students have tried alcohol
  • About 50% of 9th through 12th grade students have used marijuana
  • About 4/10 9th through 12th grade students have tried cigarettes
  • Among 12th graders, nearly 2 in 10 reported using prescription medicine without a prescription
  • 15% of high school students report having ever used select illicit or injection drugs (i.e. cocaine, inhalants, heroin, methamphetamines, hallucinogens, or ecstasy)
  • 14% of students reported misusing prescription opioids

Emotional Signs

Drugs can affect an adolescent’s emotions and personality. For instance, you may notice a sudden change in their energy level. Some drugs, such as stimulants, can make an adolescent hyperactive and talkative, while other drugs, such as marijuana, can make an adolescent lethargic and quiet. Other emotional signs of substance abuse include:

  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Aggression
  • Paranoia
  • Defensiveness
  • Depression
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Lack of motivation
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Poor memory

Social Signs

If an adolescent abuses drugs, you might see a change in their social, academic and work life, such as:

  • Avoidance of friends and family
  • Change in friends
  • Missing school and/or work
  • Poor grades
  • Stealing or frequently borrowing money
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Getting into trouble with the law

An adolescent may also use drug-related slang. Common slang terms include:

  • 420, grass, and leaf (marijuana)
  • Uppers, bennies, and dominoes (stimulants)
  • Poppers, snappers, and boppers (inhalants)
  • Blow, snow, and flake (cocaine)
  • Smack, big H, and black tar (heroin)
  • Speed, chalk, and glass (meth)
  • Benzos, candy, and chill pills (benzodiazepines)
  • Acid, lucy, and California sunshine (LSD)
  • Ecstasy, molly, and love drug (MDMA)

Physical Signs

Substance abuse can take a serious toll on an adolescent’s appearance and physical health. You might notice:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Change in pupil size
  • Poor hygiene
  • Unusual smells on their breath, body or clothes
  • Change in sleeping and/or eating patterns
  • Extreme weight loss or gain
  • Lack of coordination
  • Slurred, erratic and incoherent speech
  • Frequent skin flushing
  • Brittle hair and/or nails
  • Shaking
  • Seizures
  • Frequent sickness, as many drugs weaken the immune system
  • Frequent runny nose and/or nosebleeds (a potential sign of snorting drugs)
  • Unexplained bruises and marks (a potential sign of injecting drugs)
  • Burns on lips or fingers (a potential sign of smoking drugs)
  • Breathing problems (a potential sign of methamphetamine use)
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants in warm weather to hide drug-related injuries


Drug Paraphernalia

You may also discover drug paraphernalia, which are items used for making, consuming, or hiding drugs. Examples include:

  • Lighters, matches, candles, pipes, cigars, rolling papers, electronic cigarettes, bongs, and tinfoil for smoking drugs
  • Razor blades, mirrors, straws, tubes, hollowed-out pens, rolled-up papers, and rolled-up bills for snorting drugs
  • Syringes, needles, cotton balls, and makeshift armbands (made with materials like string, shoelaces or neckties) for injecting drug
  • Spoons or bottle caps for melting powder drugs into injectable liquids
  • Aerosol cans, balloons, and rags for inhaling drugs
  • Mouthwash, breath sprays, mints, and gum for hiding drug smells
  • Sunglasses and eye drops for hiding bloodshot eyes or changes in pupil size

The CDC has many resources regarding youth and adolescent substance abuse. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also has helpful resources, including public messages that offer information and videos to support the agency’s mission to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on communities.

This blog was originally posted by ARK Behavioral Health. Slight modifications were made and relevant research was added to better suit our audience.

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