College Students and Addiction

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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When students head to their first year of college, the world is their oyster. They’re spending extended time away from home, often for the first time. Free from the oversight of their parents or guardians, they may choose to stretch their wings and engage in new experiences. This is healthy and even encouraged, to a point. However, when students begin their freshman year of college, they’re typically around 18/19 years of age, and their brains have not yet completely developed.

Recent research is suggesting that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until the age of 25. You read that correctly – 25! An average individual heading to college still has 7 years before their brain will reach full maturity, which means that there are many areas that are still underdeveloped. Most notably, the connections between the decision-making center and the emotional part of the brain are still developing.

In part due to easy access to illicit substances and alcohol, along with an inability to make healthy decisions due to the development stages of the brain, college students are highly susceptible to falling into struggles with addiction. In addition to the separation from parents and guardians, college students begin to rely much more heavily on their peers as influencers. When peers are engaging in and supporting unhealthy behaviors, it makes it really easy to fall into the same patterns in an effort to be accepted or feel comfortable in one’s new environment. One study found that two out of five college students meet the qualifications for heavy drinkers (drinking more than five drinks in a row in a short period of time).

Study aids are another heavily abused substance category for college students. With the demands on their time and getting used to a new type of schedule, students often find themselves struggling to adjust, especially without healthy boundaries in place to help keep them on track. Many turn to ADHD medications like Adderall to help them perform well in their courses. What is initially something that they found beneficial in the short-term often causes chaos long-term. Stimulants, which are highly addictive, can also double as substances to use when partying, making them even more dangerous.

Stressors That Lead to Addiction for Students

College brings a level of stress that many have not experienced before. Many students are taking a full-time course load, working at least a part-time job, and trying to balance a social life. Young people are out of their element and in a completely new place and it can be really overwhelming. Not only are routines that have been followed for 12 years completely changed, but geography and social groups often shift as well. Trying to find one’s place in the midst of all of this can be daunting, and the stress leads many to try to find ways to relax as well as to feel comfortable with all the new people they’re meeting. What begins as a drink here or there to ‘take the edge off’ or feel more comfortable socially can develop into something far worse.

Binge drinking is a huge problem on college campuses. Classified as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL in a period of two hours, more than 1 in 3 college students admit to binge drinking. This typically happens after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men in a two-hour timeframe. This activity can lead to harmful consequences. Roughly 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle accidents and falls. Around 696,000 students experience an assault at the hands of another student who has been drinking, and 97,000 report an alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. Academic problems become a concern, and 20 percent of college students meet criteria for an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

Drinking and substance use is dangerous in so many ways. It may seem fun at first, but if your child or loved one is drinking or using a substance to excess they may need help. Substance overdoses can lead to permanent injury, brain damage, and even death and it’s important that concerns don’t go unaddressed. There are counseling centers on college campuses that can provide assistance to students who are struggling, and if students are unwilling to disclose there are resources available for their parents and guardians to find support and determine the next steps to aid them in getting help. Speaking to professionals at programs like Defining Wellness Centers can shed light on behaviors and help parents and guardians to determine if their children are truly struggling with a problem.

Students Getting Help for Addiction

Early intervention can make a world of difference when your child is struggling. The less they use, the less likely there is to be permanent damage. It’s never too early nor too late to get them the help that they need. Addiction is a scary word and you may think that your child would never be susceptible, but addiction doesn’t show any prejudice. It could be that your child was hurt and taking pain medication and developed a dependency, or they could be using legally prescribed study aids to excess to help cope with the stress they’re facing. Either way, these things become dangerous the longer they go on and prolonged use and exposure is traumatic to the body and the brain.

Our medical and clinical treatment teams specialize in working with individuals who have undergone traumatic experiences, including addiction, and work with them to develop a plan to heal. This involves bringing the family into the process as well, as it’s so important that everyone be on the same page moving forward. Please reach out to Defining Wellness Centers today if you have questions or concerns about your child. Trying new things is something to be championed, but when they have the propensity to harm or become dangerous, intervention may be necessary. Our team can guide you in working with your child or loved one so that they can have a positive college experience without fighting an active addiction.

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If you are ready to take the step towards a new life, call Defining Wellness today and learn more about how we can help you.