Summer is almost over and many young people around the United States are getting ready for the fall semester at college. For first-year students, that often means being simultaneously anxious and excited. Even for more experienced students, there are many back-to-school worries. Am I taking the right classes? Am I wearing the right clothes? Will I get along with my new roommates? For others, the worries are much bigger. Substance use in college students is a common problem, with four out of five college students using alcohol. Many students are heading into the fall semester realizing that their addiction had become unmanageable. Now, they have to decide whether they should go to college anyway or skip a semester or two and get addiction treatment instead.
“It can be very dangerous for students to ignore an addiction problem and immerse themselves in an environment where misusing drugs and alcohol is widespread,” says Ashley Harms, the manager of the alumni department at Lakeview Health. With substance use in college students being widespread and commonly referred to as “part of the college experience,” it is often overlooked by parents and family of the students as a temporary state. It doesn’t help when parents treat the substance use disorder as a passing phase. “We sometimes encounter parents who do not want their children to delay school for addiction treatment,” says Harms. “They tell their kids, ‘Finish school first,’ because they invested a lot of time and money in their children’s education and want them to succeed.”
It is a recipe for disaster. If students don’t learn how to be sober first, their college education is likely to unravel. But that is not the worst thing that can happen. The national opioid epidemic has hit college campuses hard. It is estimated that prescription drug abuse by college students is at an all-time high, with 50 percent of students being offered a prescription drug for nonmedical purposes by their sophomore year.
Prompted by fatal student overdoses and increasing awareness of substance use in college students, institutions around the country now distribute life-saving medication and provide on-campus recovery programs. “Many schools are very aware that they have a drug and alcohol problem,” says Harms. “Lakeview Health works with quite a few collegiate recovery programs. Many colleges and universities now provide outpatient treatment on campus as well as sober dorms and recovery tutoring. Quite a few have 12-Step meetings on campus.”
That might be enough for somebody who has been to rehab and enjoys a stable recovery. “But if students have not acquired solid recovery skills, if they don’t have a strong support network they can rely on, and if they haven’t really learned how to be sober in the trigger-rich environment of college, they will probably continue to abuse drugs and alcohol. They really need comprehensive addiction treatment first,” warns Harms. “It’s really important that recovery comes first and that they have a solid foundation of healthy coping mechanisms, a supportive sober network, and a sturdy self-esteem before they venture into a collegiate environment.”
Often, the substance use in college students is really masking underlying mental health problems, and if they are not addressed in therapy, the patient will continue to mask them. “Patients have to learn different ways of coping with emotional pain and stress without the negative consequences of substance misuse,” says Harms.
Going to college can be an important part of living a purposeful, sober life. But for people fighting to overcome addiction, college is also a place full of stressful pressure to achieve and other relapse triggers. In some cases, it may help students to reduce the number of semester hours to ease the workload and have more time to work on their recovery. Substance use on college campuses is not going away anytime soon, unfortunately, but learning the skills thrive in recovery in those environments is crucial.
“If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use and you’re not sure about the severity of the condition or what to do, call and talk to us,” says Robert Walters, vice president of Intake Services at Lakeview Health. “We are happy to discuss any issues you might have and make a recommendation.”
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