Addiction Risk Factors for College Students

March 12, 2021

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Claudia Black Young Adult Center

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By Beau Black

Drinking and drug use have become, for many, a socially accepted part of the college experience. College drinking especially is almost viewed as a rite of passage among students. The broad understanding that it’s “no big deal” ignores the potential consequences of college substance abuse – consequences that can alter the trajectory of a student’s life.

Drinking and drug use are indisputably widespread on college campuses. “Drinking at college has become a ritual that students often see as an integral part of their higher education experience” reports the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “According to a national survey, almost 53% of full-time college students drank alcohol in the last month and about 33% engaged in binge drinking (consuming five drinks or more on one occasion for males, four drinks or more for females). However, some college students drink at least twice that amount, a behavior that is often called high-intensity drinking.”

One of the gravest risks of alcohol abuse in college is alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal if untreated.

Factors that Influence Substance Use Among Students

“As students leave the safety and security of their homes, they undergo incredible challenges and begin to transition to adulthood,” observes Guide2Research in their examination of college substance use statistics. “This happens in a new environment, which, even though it is labeled a ‘drug-free zone,’ can sometimes prove to be the exact opposite.”

The start of a student’s freshman year is a time when they are especially susceptible to peer influence, being in a new place with new people and experiences – and (perhaps) new freedom from parental control. Students who attend colleges where fraternities and sororities are considered important and those with high-profile sports programs are likely to drink more than peers at other institutions, according to the NIAAA.

Consequences of College Drinking

Consequences of College Drinking - Claudia Black Center for Young Adults

The NIH lists a host of potential consequences of college drinking:

Death from Alcohol-Related Injuries

This can happen in a number of tragic ways, notably auto accidents or alcohol poisoning.

Assault or Sexual Assault

Both are distressingly common on college campuses, thanks in no small part to substance abuse.

Academic Problems

Students who abuse drugs and alcohol are far more likely to miss classes, fail exams, and experience other academic problems, which may postpone, or prevent them from, successfully completing their degrees.

Developing an Alcohol Use Disorder

Establishing patterns of unhealthy drinking or substance use can trigger a lifelong struggle with addiction.

Mental and Physical Health Problems

Everything from depression to digestive-tract problems can result from substance abuse.

Risky Behavior

Reduced inhibitions and decreased ability to react from being drunk or high can lead students to take unnecessary risks, which may have a lasting impact on their lives.

Legal Problems

Students who catch charges for drinking in public, driving while under the influence, or drug possession may face a long-term difficulty in securing employment. In a competitive job market, a criminal record may be hard for prospective employers to overlook.

Students who attend colleges where fraternities and sororities are considered important and those with high-profile sports programs are likely to drink more than peers at other institutions, according to the NIAAA.

One of the gravest risks of alcohol abuse in college is alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal if untreated. According to the NIH, the symptoms of alcohol poisoning include “mental confusion [or] stupor, difficulty remaining conscious or inability to wake up, vomiting, seizures, slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute), irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths), slow heart rate, clammy skin, dulled responses such as no gag reflex, extremely low body temperature, bluish skin color or paleness.” A person exhibiting some of these symptoms needs urgent medical attention.

Risk Factors for Addiction, Methods for Prevention

A study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine identifies factors that influence the risk of addiction in college students. These include drug addiction in one’s friend group, lower socio-economic status, conflict within one’s family/with family members, and “neglect and lack of parental control.”

Though some of these influences are out of a student’s control, some can be addressed proactively, like making wise choices concerning which peers to surround oneself with, setting and sticking to academic goals, and learning to manage emotional conflict in healthy ways.

Interestingly, parents play a large role in keeping students from substance abuse: “Research shows that students who choose not to drink often do so because their parents discussed alcohol use and its adverse consequences with them,” according to this study.

College programs to educate and provide counseling to students as well as reduce the availability of alcohol can be effective tools to fight substance use on campus. But the biggest factor in this fight is, of course, students themselves keeping focus on their own personal safety, academic goals, and hopes for the future.