College Student’s Guide to Avoiding Drug and Alcohol Abuse Addiction, Recovery and Navigating Substance Use Culture on Campus

Meet the Expert

Parker Horveath Read bio

Written by…

Shelley Zansler Read bio

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.

REALITY

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.

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) ARHE Collegiate Recovery Programs

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 Recovery House at Rutgers

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 Alpha 180

Sober fraternities and sororities work to make recovery less ostracized and more integrated with mainstream college life.

Safe Dances and Parties DanceSafe

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 Baltimore SCS

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.

Campus Counselors University of Connecticut Counseling Services

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.

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?

Sources: Rethinking Drinking, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependencies, Inc., Narcotics Anonymous

Additional Interactive Tools & Calculators

These interactive tools, games and worksheets can help students learn more about their habits and make positive changes where needed.

Decisions That Matter – An Interactive Experience

This interactive narrative game allows students to see the direct results of the choices they make in certain scenarios.

Rethinking Drinking: Interactive Worksheets and More

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.

Rethinking Drinking: Calculators

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 Recovery Tool Chest and Homework

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

  • 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

  • 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.
Sources: Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, BreakTheCycle.org, DrugAbuse.gov 2016

Recovery Realities

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

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:

  • Anxiety
  • Dizziness
  • Mood swings
  • Head and body aches
  • Insomnia
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
What to expect from recovery…
  • 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.
Withdrawal

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:

  • Flu-like
  • Aches
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety

Common late withdrawal symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Chills
  • Vomiting
  • Depression
  • Cramps
  • Diarrhea
What to expect from recovery…
  • 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

Withdrawal symptoms from benzodiazepines can be mild or very serious and generally begin within 24 hours of last consumption.

Common withdrawal symptoms:

  • Tension
  • Panic attacks
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Tremors
  • Disturbed sleep

Serious withdrawal symptoms:

  • Delirium
  • Hallucinations
  • Fever
  • Seizures
What to expect from recovery…
  • 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.
Withdrawal

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
  • Depressions
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Slow thinking and activity
  • Restlessness
  • Vivid nightmares
  • Increased appetite
What to expect from recovery…
  • 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.
Method & Desired Outcomes
  • In-patient

    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.

  • Medically Supervised

    Can be both in-patient or outpatient, uses medically administered detox drugs to minimize cravings or withdrawal symptoms.

  • Medicated Detox

    Patient is directed to use non-addictive, over the counter medications like ibuprofen, nausea or insomnia medications to help lessen cravings or withdrawal symptoms.

Used in recovery from…
  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium)
  • Opioids (Vicodin, Heroin)
Method & Desired Outcomes
  • In-patient

    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.

  • Out-patient

    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.

Used in recovery from…
  • Alcohol
  • Opioids
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Tobacco
  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Co-occurring conditions (depression paired with addiction, for instance)
Method & Desired Outcomes

Medication can be used to assist people with withdrawal symptoms, co-occurring conditions and relapse prevention.

Used in recovery from…
  • Alcohol
  • Opioids
  • Tobacco
  • Co-occurring conditions (depression paired with addiction, for instance)
Method & 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…
  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepine
  • Opioids
  • Cocaine
  • Marijuana

Recovery Resources

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:

Success Story: Overcoming Substance Abuse on Campus

Parker Horveath

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.