Substance Abuse on Campus: Challenges First-Year College Students Face

College is a good way for young adults to gain independence but it can also put them in situations where drugs and alcohol are easily accessible.

Substance Abuse on Campus: Challenges First-Year College Students Face

(Photo: Zdenek Sasek, Adobe Stock)

As many college students head home for winter break, some are going home for the first time since they moved away for college. While first-year college students enjoy exciting opportunities to make new friends, boost their knowledge, and gain independence, they also face challenges that increase their risk of alcohol and drug abuse.

Over time, these challenges can lead to addiction, a disease that makes you feel unable to control your substance use, and the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of June 2020, 13% of Americans reported starting or increasing substance use as a way of coping with stress or emotions related to COVID-19.

While it is recommended that loved ones keep an eye out for potential signs of substance abuse as students return home, it is also helpful to understand the challenges students often face in their first year of college that may lead to abuse.

Peer Pressure

It’s not always easy to enter a new social environment. To fit in, many students start abusing alcohol or other drugs. For example, at a party, a student may try to impress their peers by binge drinking (drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time). This behavior significantly increases the risk of alcohol addiction. It can also cause alcohol poisoning, a potentially fatal condition that disrupts a person’s breathing and heart rate.

Peer pressure also makes students more likely to try illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine. Because these substances are so powerful, it doesn’t take long to get addicted to them.

Lack Of Supervision

Some high schoolers want to use drugs but can’t due to parental supervision or oversight. Once they enter college, they can spend their free time however they want. While this freedom may excite students, it poses a significant risk of substance abuse and addiction.

To make matters worse, many colleges don’t enforce underage drinking laws on a consistent basis. On these campuses, it’s easy for first-year students to develop alcohol problems.

Increased Access To Drugs

Most college students have no trouble accessing drugs. Alcohol appears at almost every party, and most people have friends (or friends-of-friends) who can connect them with other substances as well. In these cases, students may use drugs simply because they can.

In addition, they may assume that if lots of people use a drug, it must be safe. However, even popular, supposedly low-risk drugs like marijuana can be addictive if used regularly.


College can cause serious stress. Students must keep up with demanding coursework, maintain a social life, and, in some cases, manage part-time jobs or internships. To cope with these stressors, some students turn to drugs. Many use alcohol or sedative drugs like Xanax to relax and treat stress-induced insomnia (difficulty sleeping).

On the other hand, some students use stimulants, such as Adderall or Ritalin, to stay awake and complete assignments. These substances are so popular among college students that they’re often called “study drugs.”

When students rely on substances to ease stress, they’ll almost always develop an addiction.

Mental Health Problems

Many college students live with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about half of people with mental health conditions develop drug addiction. That’s because many people use drugs to self-medicate.

For example, a student with social anxiety disorder may abuse alcohol to feel more comfortable at parties. Similarly, a student with depression might use cocaine to feel happy and energized.

Freshmen are more likely to self-medicate than other students, as they may struggle to adjust to a new routine and find a support system on campus.

How to Get Help

Drug addiction poses serious risks, including damaged relationships, financial difficulties, and life-threatening health problems. Fortunately, it’s treatable.

If you’re a college student who feels unable to stop using substances, contact your school’s health services department. The staff can connect you with treatment programs, therapists, support groups, and other helpful resources. You could also ask a parent or other trusted adult to help you find treatment.

Here are some additional resources:

Amy Matton is a content writer for Ark Behavioral Health. She strives to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction and other mental health conditions.

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