Can drug and alcohol use in college lead to addiction? It’s a question that deserves some consideration.
Summer is on the downswing, the semester starts soon and you’re preparing to embark on the next chapter of your life: college. Mom and dad are excited but nervous, and one of the last things they’ll tell you before you leave for school, or before they depart after lugging your belongings up to your dorm, is a familiar refrain: “Be careful!”
Those two words mean a whole lot of things, not the least of which is, “Please don’t lose your mind and party so hard that you get kicked out and ruin your life.” Sure, that’s a little melodramatic, but they’re thinking it nonetheless. And their concerns aren’t unfounded. Consider the following the following statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s collection of data from the 2011-2014 National Survey on Drug use and Health :
- On an average day during the past year, 2,179 full-time college students drank alcohol for the first time, and 1,326 used an illicit drug for the first time.
- On an average day during the past year, 453 part-time college students drank alcohol for the first time, and 174 used an illicit drug for the first time.
- On an average day during the past year, of the 9 million full-time college students in the United States, 1.2 million drank alcohol, and 703,759 used marijuana.
- On an average day during the past year, of the 2 million part-time college students in the United States, 239,212 drank alcohol, and 195,020 used marijuana.
So does that mean that by fall break, you’re going to be a raging alcoholic or a strung-out junkie, crawling back home on hands and knees to beg forgiveness and tell mom and dad they were right? Of course not. But recognizing the validity of their concerns is the first step in looking out for your own health and safety.
A rocket to Stress Town
If you’re a newly minted college freshman, it’s important to prepare yourself for just how overwhelmed you might be. After all, this is the first phase of your life in which you have complete control. Sure, the parents might have pressured you to go to college, but if you’re 18, you’re legally considered an adult. And with adulthood comes a certain degree of independence that’s both incredibly exciting and completely terrifying.
That’s one reason why the first few weeks of the semester can set the tone for alcohol and drug use, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism : “Although the majority of students come to college already having some experience with alcohol, certain aspects of college life, such as unstructured time, the widespread availability of alcohol, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws, and limited interactions with parents and other adults, can intensify the problem. The first 6 weeks of freshman year are a vulnerable time for harmful and underage college drinking and alcohol-related consequences because of student expectations and social pressures at the start of the academic year.”
Stress, of course, isn’t limited to those first six weeks. Because college amounts to a monumental lifestyle change, academic and peer pressures often mean that stress levels are high throughout a college student’s higher education. And it only makes sense that the more stress someone endures, the more likely he or she is to seek out coping mechanisms to handle it. But that doesn’t have to be drugs and alcohol. There are a number of coping mechanisms laid out in a 2010 Everyday Health article  that are just common sense — sleep, diet, exercise, emotional support — but it also points out that while “having three or four beers to unwind after a hard day of studying may seem perfectly logical, but any unresolved stress that you have will just come flooding back after your buzz subsides. Plus, if you overindulge, you may have to deal with unpleasant side effects, like nausea and hangovers, later on.”
All aboard the Booze Cruise
If you’re a fan of comedies about college culture, then you’re probably aware that higher learning has always been portrayed as a place to party first and get an education second. While it’s a convenient (and possibly lazy) trope, it’s important to remember that it’s also fictional. However, studies have shown that alcohol is still a prevalent part of college life: While it’s almost two decades old, one of the most exhaustive studies of college drinking patterns , conducted in 2000, surveyed roughly 7,000 students. The findings? “The underage students surveyed, most of whom reported that it was ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’ to obtain alcohol, were more likely to obtain alcohol inexpensively and more likely to drink in private settings such as dorms and fraternity parties.”
When it comes to drugs, the statistics are similar: A Take 5 Media survey detailed in 2018 by the Washington Examiner reveals  that “college students report that it is ‘very easy’ or ‘easy’ to score drugs,” while less than 5 percent said that it’s “difficult.” Of those polled, 49 percent said they had actually bought such substances. (It’s worth noting that the survey specifically excluded marijuana.)
Whether you, as a college student, will partake in alcohol or drugs is a different story, of course. That’s a decision you and only you can make, but the numbers don’t lie: Chances are more than good that they’ll be available to you, should you desire them.
So … Should You Indulge?
Look, we’re a drug and alcohol treatment center, but we’re not going to ape Mr. Mackey of “South Park” fame and tell you, “Drugs are bad, mmkay?” The whole “just say no” movement lacks any nuance, and it certainly never addresses the complexities of alcohol and drug use. As one article in Scientific American points out  about D.A.R.E. programs, the popular anti-drug campaigns that gained traction in the 1980s, “Merely telling participants to ‘just say no’ to drugs is unlikely to produce lasting effects because many may lack the needed interpersonal skills.”
As a business, Cornerstone of Recovery takes no official stance on the legalization of drugs, the effectiveness of education and prevention efforts or the various parental approaches to keep their college students from developing a problem. Our goal is to point out, as we’ve already done to this point, that your chances of being exposed to or offered alcohol and drugs in college are pretty good, what one of the myriad possibilities are if you do.
So could you try drugs and alcohol and become an addict or an alcoholic? The easy answer: Yes. You could also go through your entire college career partying your tail off, graduate and move on to proper adulthood having left it all behind. Just because the answer is yes doesn’t mean it’s a certainty, and unfortunately, there’s no test, medical or psychological or otherwise, to determine whether you will or will not develop a problem. While addiction and alcoholism are recognized as legitimate diseases by the medical and scientific communities, they’re still illnesses that pose more questions than answers because of the complexity of the organ they affect the most: the brain.
So can drug and alcohol use in college lead to addiction?
There’s no easy answer to that question. Because addiction and alcoholism can occur in anyone, there’s no 100% guarantee you will or will not become one of the afflicted. There are, however, some factors you should take into consideration, such as:
- In a 2006 article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter , published by Harvard Medical School, it says pretty plainly that “there is plenty of evidence for a connection between genetic endowment and addiction to alcohol and drugs.” How? “Genes shape temperament: People who are impulsive, take risks, and habitually seek new experiences are more likely to become addicted. Genes also govern responses to stress. The pharmacokinetics of addictive substances — how quickly they are absorbed, broken down, and excreted — is under genetic control, too, as is the pharmacodynamics — the intensity of a person's response to the substance.”
- The substances themselves. Knocking back a beer for the first time isn’t likely to turn you into a raging alcoholic. Taking a hit at a party where a joint is being passed probably won’t leave you with a raging weed problem. Some drugs are more addictive than others, however, and what you take, as well as how often you take it, can determine whether or not you might develop a problem with it. (There’s a reason there aren’t a whole lot of “casual” heroin users out there, for example.)
- Environmental factors. Family dynamics, peer groups, individual culture and religion, media, even social media — they all can play a role in whether someone leans toward experimenting with or abstaining from drugs and alcohol, according to a 2018 article in Psychology Today.
- Other mental health issues. If you’ve been diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, even ADHD, it’s worth noting that you’re at a higher risk for addiction and alcoholism: “People with co-occurring alcohol and other drug use disorders are more likely to have psychiatric disorders such as personality, mood, and anxiety disorders; they are more likely to attempt suicide and to suffer health problems,” according to the National Institutes of Health .
Still … none of those factors make a definitive determination about whether you will or won’t become addicted to drugs and alcohol. Some individuals hit every single one of those markers, floating through college on a river of booze and pills, and it never develops into a serious problem. Others might breeze through on a scholarship and graduate summa cum laude, only to land in a drug and alcohol treatment center five times before they’re 30.
There’s simply no standard method of determining which path you’ll take. So while it’s probably not a suggestion you’re willing to consider, it stands to reason that if you want to avoid any chance at all of falling victim to addiction or alcoholism, your best bet is to never pick them up in the first place.
That may seem impossible, and you may not have any interest in abstaining. After all, no one thinks becoming an addict or an alcoholic can happen to them … until it does. The most important thing, as you start or continue your college journey, is to recognize that it’s not outside the realm of possibility — for you or your peers.