Addiction, Recovery and Navigating Substance Use Culture on Campus
When first starting school, there are a lot of rewarding and exciting things college students encounter: roommates, new surroundings, tough classes, making friends. But students should also be aware of drug and alcohol culture on campus. Use of alcohol and drugs, including prescription drugs, is not as taboo as it used to be, and the casual attitude toward substance use can make drugs and alcohol seem less risky. Use this guide to prepare for experiences involving drugs or alcohol in college, recognize substance abuse and seek help and learn about the myths and realities of campus drinking and drug culture to navigate through college in a fun and healthy way.
A Reality Check About Drugs and Alcohol on Campus
Many students get their first real experiences with substance use and abuse when they begin college. The freedom and ease of experimentation during college can be both exciting and scary, and there are plenty of myths and stereotypes surrounding substance use to make sense of. Getting familiar with some common warnings and situations-and the realities behind them-can help students make smarter choices about substance use.
You might feel pressured, but you don’t have to say yes. There are plenty of students who participate in social activities and go to parties without drinking or taking drugs. If you feel like you need to partake to have fun, this particular party or group of friends may not be a good fit for you.TIP
Offer to be the designated driver. However, it’s not always that easy to dodge social pressure. Take a look at some other tips for saying “No” that are realistic for students.
You might feel prepared beforehand, but in the moment it can be a different story. You might wonder if you’re overreacting in what seems like an unsafe situation, like seeing an unconscious stranger, and the influence of alcohol or drugs can keep you from acting or speaking up. Don’t let your setting, state of mind or friends deter you from taking action.TIP
It’s easy to freeze up when a situation you prepared for actually takes place. If you see something that seems potentially dangerous and you aren’t sure what to do, don’t wait. Find someone sober and tell them what’s going on. You’ll have strength in numbers and they can help you act.
This could happen, but it doesn’t have to. Suspecting you may have had sex that you or your partner would not have consented to while sober is not a good feeling, and could lead to serious consequences like legal charges and health issues, both mental and physical.TIP
Someone can’t legally consent if they’re drunk or high, but consent isn’t just “no means no” or “yes means yes”. Get to know what consent really means, and know you can ALWAYS change your mind. If the person you are with is too intoxicated to be in complete, enthusiastic control, stop.
Alcohol and many drugs are depressants and can effectively “loosen people up.” However, despite the friendliness you might adopt while under the influence, depressants actually slow down the central nervous system, meaning the more you consume the worse you will physically feel and possibly act.TIP
If you have social anxiety that keeps you from participating without being under the influence, you’re not alone. Make your room a safe and comfortable space, and start by going to the campus library—a place you can be around a lot of people where you don’t have to be social. Learning from the personal experiences of others with social anxiety can help give you some other ideas for overcoming anxiety that don’t involve unhealthy substance use.
Especially for students trying to stick with a group or a friend, leaving an unsafe situation when someone else wants to stay can be tricky. However, it’s important to trust your judgement.TIP
Don’t be afraid to be an active bystander. Be honest, take your friend aside and talk to them alone. It can be easier to express uneasiness to someone you know when there aren’t other people around. Or make up an excuse — the Ask for Angela campaign was created as a way to discreetly get help if you feel unsafe. If drugs or alcohol are making it difficult to convince a friend to leave, try these tips for looking out for your friends.
Both bingeing and self-medicating can seem totally fine for a while, but developing habits around substance use can quickly turn into substance abuse, because you’re allowing a substance to become a regular, relied-upon element in your life. Tolerance build-up is another risk, which causes people to use more and more of a given substance to achieve the same result.TIP
Monitor your intake and how your substance use affects your mood and academic performance, or ask a friend you trust to be honest with you about your usage. The line between safe consumption and substance abuse is not always easy one to see. The tools later in this guide can help students track their substance use habits and make positive lifestyle changes.
Legal vs. Illegal Substance Use
Students will likely find both legal and illegal substances around campus. Many schools have policies for acceptable substance use on campus, protocols for drug testing routines and consequences for possessing, using or abusing drugs as a student. Here’s an outline of the legal and illegal substances students could encounter.
Campus Regulations & Policies
The following are different designations that may be in force on a college campus:
- Dry campus No alcohol is allowed on campus or at campus events, regardless of a person’s age.
- Marijuana-free Even in states where marijuana is legal or decriminalized, campuses tend to remain marijuana-free. Its use is against federal law, and permitting it on campus would jeopardize a school’s federal funding.
- Smoke-free/tobacco-free Smoking and/or tobacco use is not allowed anywhere on campus. This may also restrict vaping.
- NCAA testing for college athletes Student athletes are tested regularly for performance enhancing and recreational drugs.
- Individual drug tests Students may be drug tested on an individual basis if school officials have reason to believe substances are being used or abused.
- Legal and illegal substances in college housing “Wet” campuses may allow safe consumption of alcohol in dorms if the door is closed and everyone present is of legal drinking age. Illegal consumption or possession of drugs or alcohol in campus housing can jeopardize a student’s housing eligibility or academic standing.
- “Wet” and “dry” sporting events Some schools sell alcohol at campus sporting events, while others don’t. The NCAA does not allow alcohol to be sold to the general public at its Championship events.
Drug and Alcohol Culture at College
Among many students, drugs and alcohol are very accepted and often seen as a natural part of everyday life and the college experience. Because many colleges don’t want to mar their reputations, they handle drug and alcohol abuse situations internally. The increasing ease of access to and destigmatization of drugs-particularly marijuana-and alcohol use contributes to college “tolerance culture.” There is, however, a growing number and variety of resources to help students stay above the casual attitude toward substance use on campus.
Combatting Drugs and Alcohol Abuse In College
Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRP) and Collegiate Recovery Centers (CRC)
Institutionally supported programs for students recovering from drug and alcohol addiction while in school. They often have counseling, peer-to-peer support and social activities.
Sober/Clean-Living Residence Halls
Some of these types of dorms are for recovering students in particular, but many are simply substance-free residence halls for any student who prefers to avoid drugs or alcohol.
Sober Greek Life
Sober fraternities and sororities work to make recovery less ostracized and more integrated with mainstream college life.
Safe Dances and Parties
Drugs are usually a significant part of music festival, rave and party culture, but students who want to dance and without the risk can look for substance-free events or visit a DanceSafe booth for harm reduction services like free water, condoms and drug information.
Safe-consumption spaces allow those in recovery to consume drugs under the supervision of medical professionals to help them wean off drugs without putting their bodies into shock, risking overdose or getting arrested.
Even counselors whose expertise isn’t specific to substance abuse can help students figure out their habits and point them to additional resources.
Substance Terms and Lingo on College Campuses
There are many different drug-related terms commonly used around campus, and hearing an unfamiliar phrase can be awkward, at best. An uncomfortable situation can be made much worse if students decide to partake without knowing what they’re about to do. The following list includes just a few of the terms you might hear around campus. Getting familiar with them can help less-experienced students become more aware of their surroundings and the types of substances and circumstances they may encounter.
A unit of measure, usually used to describe 1/8th of an ounce of cocaine or meth.
Short for benzodiazepines, which are typically anti-anxiety medications.
Refers to the bowl of a glass smoking pipe often used to smoke weed. A bowl can also refer to a unit of measurement. Ex. “I smoked a whole bowl last night.”
Cocaine. “I can’t feel my face” typically refers to being high on cocaine.
Dabs are concentrated doses of marijuana, usually in oil or wax form, that are made by using butane or carbon dioxide to extract THC and other cannabinoids. Dabs can be heated and smoked by using a dab rig, which looks like an elaborate bong.
Foods infused or baked with marijuana, marijuana butter, oil, etc.
Short for hydrocodone, the generic name for a class of opioid painkillers.
Short for joint, or marijuana ground up and rolled in cigarette paper.
A drink made from codeine (cough syrup), soda and candy.
The active ingredient in ecstasy. It may be sold in pressed pill form with different logos, where it is commonly laced with other drugs like methamphetamine (meth).
Supposedly a pure form of MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy. Molly is usually a powder, either loose in a bag or in a gel capsule, unlike ecstasy, which is usually pressed into a pill or tablet.
Actual mushrooms that produce a psychedelic effect when consumed.
The experience of being high on opioids.
Short for oxycodone, the generic name for another class of opioid painkillers.
The last few centimeters or remains of a rolled cigarette or joint after it is smoked.
A nickname for the tranquilizer Rohypnol, but also used for similar date rape drugs like GHB.
The high from being on ecstasy. Ex “Rolling on molly.” “Rolling on X.” “She partied so hard last night that she was still rolling in class this morning.”
A synthetic “sister” drug to molly or ecstasy.
Usually some combination of tobacco and marijuana, rolled into a cigarette.
Bits of blotting paper laced with LSD.
The high from being on psychedelics.
Plant-form of marijuana.
Short for vaporizer. Vapes can be used to smoke tobacco and marijuana (in plant or oil form) and are intended to provide a cleaner, more pleasant smoking experience.
Xanax, a popular prescription benzo.
Substance Abuse and Where to Draw the Line
Whether it’s binge drinking on weekends, using study drugs to stay on top of a heavy workload or getting stoned to relieve stress after class, substance use is common among college students. It can be difficult to tell when safe use becomes abuse, though, especially when it seems like everyone is doing it. The process is often gradual and can sneak up quickly. About 38 percent of full-time college students aged 18-22 reported binge drinking within the past month according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. According to a national survey on drug use by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, daily marijuana consumption among college students was at a 30-year-high in 2015. Between 1993 and 2005, a Columbia University study on college substance abuse showed the proportion of students who abuse prescription painkillers rose 343 percent.
Signs It’s Time To Draw The Line
It’s important for college students to be mindful of their habits to avoid substance dependence or addiction. Substance abuse can get out of hand quickly, leading to physical and mental health problems, failed classes and personal and professional troubles. Many consequences of substance abuse can be avoided or fixed if students can recognize the signs of a problem and address it quickly. Take this quiz to help gauge your substance use habits:
QUIZ: DO I HAVE A DRINKING OR SUBSTANCE ABUSE PROBLEM?
Additional Interactive Tools & Calculators
These interactive tools, games and worksheets can help students learn more about their habits and make positive changes where needed.
This interactive narrative game allows students to see the direct results of the choices they make in certain scenarios.
The multiple tools on this page can help students track their drinking habits, determine whether they have a problem and keep control over their drinking.
Number-minded students may find that the cost of alcohol, calorie intake, drink size equivalency and cocktail content calculators are great motivators to curb excessive drinking habits.
SMART provides a plethora of worksheets, interactive tools, activities and information pages that students can use to help with substance abuse prevention or recovery.
How to Help a Friend Who Has Gone Too Far
Recognizing substance abuse in someone else can be conflicting and emotionally taxing. Approaching a friend or loved one about their consumption habits is a delicate matter, and the thought of losing a friend can prevent people of ever addressing the issue. But careful planning and knowing some dos and don’ts can help you effectively communicate concerns to a friend without causing a huge blow-out, and could help you save a life.
- DON’T talk about the subject of addiction or getting help when the person is under the influence.
- DON’T guilt or insult them about their substance abuse.
- DON’T force them to cooperate.
- DON’T use confrontational phrases or sentence structures, like “you do” or “you are” phrases.
- DON’T approach them without a solid, well-thought plan, including what to say if they justify their actions. DO create proactive steps for the two of you can take right away.
- DON’T be wishy-washy or vague when discussing why their addiction is upsetting or a problem.
- DON’T get discouraged if they deny your help.
- DON’T lecture them.
- DO wait until they’re sober, but while the effects of drinking or drug use are still fresh and on the mind of the person using.
- DO be open, and express concern delicately. Focus on how their habits make you feel.
- DO make it clear that you are there for them when they decide to get help. Research and plan so it’s easier for them to say yes.
- DO use “I” statements. Focus on your feelings and perceptions rather than what they do or should/shouldn’t do.
- DO research ahead of time, so you can suggest going to an AA meeting together that night or tell them about a cool looking treatment center, sober dorm or student recovery group. Write out what you want to say and prepare for retorts or excuses.
- DO be clear that you have reasons to believe they have a problem, and provide specific examples. Be firm in your presentation without being confrontational.
- DO keep an open line of communication. Be an example by taking care of yourself, and avoid enabling. Encourage them and plan fun, sober activities to do together.
- DO understand that they might already be aware of their problem but aren’t necessarily ready to confront it.
Students who recognize their problem and want to seek help for their addiction should know that recovering while attending school is not easy, but it is possible. There is an array of resources students can use to help them stay on track with both their recovery and their studies.
What recovery looks like while in college…
Recovery is also difficult for those supporting someone with a substance abuse problem. These tips and resources can help supporters prepare for and navigate through the recovery process.
What supporting someone with substance abuse looks like…
Recovery Types & Timelines
Recovery looks different for everyone and largely depends on the type of substance abused along with how long and how often the abuse took place. Factors like family history, mental health and the method of consumption can also affect recovery times and withdrawal symptoms. The following table provides a general rundown of what those in recovery-and their supporters-can expect from withdrawal and recovery from different types of substances.
Withdrawal symptoms begin within eight hours to a few days after the last drink. Symptoms range in severity, from feeling hungover to delirium tremens, which can be fatal if left unaddressed.
Common withdrawal symptoms:
- Mood swings
- Head and body aches
- Increased heart rate
- Withdrawal peaks after one to three days and generally lasts a few weeks.
- Withdrawal and recovery is most intense and challenging in the beginning. Physical effects taper off within a few weeks, but alcohol cravings and other psychological effects can last much longer.
- Counseling and recovery groups can help smooth the recovery process and prevent relapse.
Opiates and OpioidsWithdrawal
There are generally two phases of opioid/opiate withdrawal: early and late. Withdrawal begins as soon as the drug is no longer active in the bloodstream.
Common early withdrawal symptoms:
- Runny nose
Common late withdrawal symptoms:
- Depending on whether the drug is short-acting or longer-acting, early withdrawal can begin between six and 30 hours after last consumption.
- Late withdrawal tends to peak within 72 hours and can last a week or more. The psychological effects can last longer.
- Unassisted withdrawal and recovery is not usually life-threatening but can increase the chance of relapse. Those in recovery may want to seek support from mental health professionals to help prevent relapse and cope with the psychological effects and symptoms of withdrawal.
- Those in recovery may want to seek support from mental health professionals to help prevent relapse and cope with the psychological effects and symptoms of withdrawal.
Withdrawal symptoms from benzodiazepines can be mild or very serious and generally begin within 24 hours of last consumption.
Common withdrawal symptoms:
- Panic attacks
- Irregular heart rate
- Disturbed sleep
Serious withdrawal symptoms:
- Physical withdrawal symptoms tend to last between a few days and a few months. However, because the brain is working to regain balance of its natural sedative, GABA, heavy abusers in particular can experience physical and psychological symptoms for years after using benzos.
- Recovery and withdrawal should be monitored, because suddenly cutting off intake of the drug can be life-threatening.
- Mental health professionals can help those in recovery cope with anxiety and other psychological withdrawal symptoms.
Cocaine withdrawal comes with very few physical withdrawal symptoms, but psychological symptoms kick in quickly, usually within 90 minutes of taking the last dose.
Common withdrawal symptoms:
- Cocaine cravings
- Slow thinking and activity
- Vivid nightmares
- Increased appetite
- Because cocaine is short-acting, it leaves the system relatively quickly. Withdrawal usually lasts between 7 and ten days and can often be done unassisted or as an outpatient treatment.
- Because of the psychological effects, particularly increased suicide risk, medically assisted detox is recommended for people with a history of depression.
Detoxification or StabilizationMethod & Desired Outcomes
The first step in many in-patient rehabilitation programs, includes round-the-clock supervision and care for the physical and emotional needs of a person going through withdrawal.
Can be both in-patient or outpatient, uses medically administered detox drugs to minimize cravings or withdrawal symptoms.
Patient is directed to use non-addictive, over the counter medications like ibuprofen, nausea or insomnia medications to help lessen cravings or withdrawal symptoms.
- Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium)
- Opioids (Vicodin, Heroin)
Behavioral counselingMethod & Desired Outcomes
Used for more severe or co-occurring issues and can include structured, 24-hour care. Safe housing and medical attention may be used to help a person develop healthy life skills and alter behaviors toward drugs.
Individuals meet with a counselor on a regular basis. Visits may be more frequent at first. Individual and group counseling may also occur to help a person make positive cognitive changes.
- Co-occurring conditions (depression paired with addiction, for instance)
MedicationMethod & Desired Outcomes
Medication can be used to assist people with withdrawal symptoms, co-occurring conditions and relapse prevention.Used in recovery from…
- Co-occurring conditions (depression paired with addiction, for instance)
12-Step ProgramsMethod & Desired Outcomes
A model of self-help program that involves group counseling and self-realization through 12 steps and, often, looking to a higher power for guidance. These programs provide strong peer-to-peer support.Used in recovery from…
- American Addiction Centers - LGBT and Gay-Friendly Rehab Centers Comprehensive information about addiction and substance abuse within the queer community and tips for finding a queer-friendly rehab center.
- "5 Types of Rehab Explained" Figure out which type of rehab might be best for you.
- The Center An excellent example of an LGBT-friendly community center that offers recovery support and treatment programs.
- 36 Addiction Recovery Group Activities Some ideas of recovery-focused activities for group meetings.
- Mansfield Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Program A great example of an organization designed to increase accessibility of drug and alcohol prevention service to African-American and Hispanic communities.
- Hazelden Betty Ford - Teen and Young Adult Addiction Treatment Rehabilitation options outside of school for teens and young adults.
- The Fix Accessible news, forums, blogs, reviews and more, all about addiction and recovery.
Parent Tips: Substance Use, Abuse and Supporting Your Student
For parents, preparing kids to leave the nest and head off to college is an exciting, sad and proud occasion. Parents have to face the realities that come with a change of environment, and this means not shying away from the prevalence and risks of substance use and abuse on campus. It can be difficult not to veer too far into overprotection, but there are ways parents can be proactive about substance use and abuse while still allowing their children to engage in college culture and develop as individuals.
- Keep in touch Especially during the first six weeks of school, it’s important for parents to check in with their students now and then. This is when students adjust to a new way of life, develop new habits and meet new people, so it’s wise to make sure that process is a smooth and healthy one. Make sure to communicate how much you’ll keep in touch, so you can do so without “smothering” your child.
- Answer questions honestly Parents should talk to their kids about safe and unsafe substance use on campus before school starts, and they should expect their kids to have some questions. Answering their questions honestly sets the tone for continued, open conversation once they set off to school. Here are some tips for answering your child’s tough questions.
- Don’t brag about your wild college experiences Sometimes parents get so caught up in the excitement of their child leaving for college that all their old stories come pouring out. While some stories can be fairly innocuous, tales of wild parties, saucy escapades, fraternity drinking championships and other “glorifying” substance abuse experiences show students that these activities are not just acceptable, but admirable.
- Encourage other activities Parents can encourage their students to participate in clubs, sports and non-school activities. These activities leave less time for partying and casual substance use, engage students and provide a way to make friends and build meaningful relationships outside the party scene.
- Lend a non-judgmental ear If parents want their kids to be honest about their consumption, which is essential in making sure they’re being safe, they should do their best to listen openly and without judgment. It may be difficult to hear about their children’s underage drinking or experimentation with drugs and not get upset, but keeping an open line of communication is worth the effort.
- Pay attention to their grades and mood Parents should make note of any significant mood or attitude changes they notice in their student, either when interacting in person or on the phone. Asking about grades and seeing whether they’re in line with their students’ course load and anticipated performance can also clue parents in to a potential substance abuse problem within their child. If you’re not sure, cross check their behavior with some of the signs and symptoms of alcohol and drug abuse.
- Prepare them for unsafe situations Before sending them off, teach them about potentially unsafe situations they may experience while using drugs or alcohol.
- Learn about recovery options If your student does end up developing a substance abuse problem, take the time to research and learn about various recovery options that would best suit the student’s needs. Some helpful resources: Where to Turn When Your College Student Has Substance Use Issues What to Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with Drugs
Success Story: Overcoming Substance Abuse on Campus
Parker is currently the Digital Marketing Coordinator at Ambrosia Treatment Center in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. His pragmatic yet introspective take on substance abuse recovery bridges the gap between science and firsthand experience. Professionally he aims to reach the struggling and the recovering addict through his writing and communication skills.
What was it like to deal with substance abuse while going to college?
Once drugs and alcohol took over my life, everything else came second. Being successful in college requires dedication of both time and effort to academics and extracurricular activities, and I almost completely threw my education away when my priorities shifted to accommodate my drug use. Once I crossed that line from recreational use to full-blown addiction, there was no way I was going to be successful getting my degree. As my friends realized the extent of my problem, many began to distance themselves. I became increasingly dependent on substances to function. I was isolated and miserable and apathetic towards life in general. My attitude towards my education and my future was no exception.
On the other hand, I spent the latter half of my college career in recovery. Going through college while maintaining sobriety was both challenging and rewarding. Many times, my friends would go out on a Friday night somewhere I felt out of place being sober, or uncomfortable because I knew I would be tempted to drink or use drugs. I had to decline and make other plans for the night. There were many sacrifices I had to make to stay sober, but good friends will always understand and respect your decision to live a sober life.
How/when did you decide to get help with your substance abuse issue?
I only got help when I realized I had no other choice. The last thing I wanted to do was reach out to someone else and admit that I had a problem. Fortunately, I had a very supportive family that made that decision for me.
I entered treatment three years into college with no desire to be sober but recognizing that I had a problem. There, I learned about the disease of addiction and how much better life in recovery was than the way I was living. It was then that I decided to follow simple suggestions that I learned from those who got sober before me.
What did you find most helpful during your recovery?
First and foremost, support from my friends and family has been the most helpful resource I have when it comes to recovery. I still rely on them every day to get me through the tough times and encourage me to stay on the right path.
Once I was in recovery, I had two separate groups of friends, those who were also in recovery and those who drank responsibly but supported my decision to stay clean and limited their drinking when I was around. These were the friends that had no problem going to the movies on a Friday night instead of a party. I started going to 12-step meetings and met many great friends there that I still have to this day.
What advice or insights do you have for college students who may be dealing with substance abuse, those who are trying to prevent it, or those who are in recovery while attending school?
If you are struggling with substance abuse in college, my best advice would be to reach out and get help sooner rather than later. In my opinion, the best way to get sober would be to go through a residential treatment program. It’s well worth it to put a semester on hold to get a foundation for recovery.
Find a group of supportive, sober people and stick with them. A vital part of any sober support group, whether 12-step based or not, is fellowship. Hanging out with people before and after the meeting allowed me to find people who were doing the same thing that I was: staying sober in a college environment.
Whether you are in sobriety, currently struggling with substance abuse or just a typical college student, you are who you associate with. If you hang around people who are abusing drugs, your chances of participating in the same behavior go up. On the other hand, if you associate with people who are doing the right thing, you tend to join them. If you choose your friends wisely, you can become a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem.