Young-adult addiction

30/06/14 5:11 PM

College students hit the bottle, the bong, and sometimes the books

College is a time for young people to find themselves, experience the world on their own, expand their horizons and meet new people. You might think your college-age child is living in a safe and at least somewhat-controlled environment, but do you know what’s actually going on in your son or daughter’s dorm?

A recent report from SAMSA on young-adult substance use by college students should give every parent pause. And a study from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor1 looks specifically at college students:

  • Nearly one in 10 college students are taking Adderall.  And handing extra pills out to friends “for studying.”
  • Five percent are smoking weed every day.
  • Four percent drink every day.
  • In the past two weeks, almost 40 percent binge-drank, having downed five or more alcoholic drinks in a row.

In just the past 30 days:

  • More than one in five college students have taken an illicit drug.
  • Two-thirds have consumed alcohol.
  • Forty percent have been drunk.
  • One in five have been high on marijuana.

While drug and alcohol “experimentation” comes with the territory, it seems to be way over the top for a group that is supposed to be learning advanced skills for future employment.

Virtually guaranteed

With over half of the college-aged population involved in at least some type of substance use or abuse, it’s virtually guaranteed that your own son or daughter has been affected by alcohol and drug use – whether they use, feel peer pressure to use, or have trouble studying due to nearby partying. Maybe your son is rooming with the daily pot-smoker. Maybe your daughter is dating the person with the Adderall script. Maybe your son’s frat parties are the best place to get blackout drunk on the weekends.

It doesn’t take long for someone who’s on the right track to get sidetracked. These tight-knit using groups form fast, and with hardly any effort at all. Getting occasionally wasted is expected and accepted in college, but what starts as casually getting high on Friday night to let loose can snowball and end up derailing even the most promising students.

Impossible to know

Is your child part of a heavy-use group? How would you know? Even for parents who are footing the hefty tuition bills, it’s nearly impossible to know exactly what’s going on. School records – including grades, attendance, academic probation notices, etc. – are all private. You only know what your child tells you and what your child lets you see when you visit.

It happens at even the top-rated colleges: Clever, using students find ways to get degrees by taking “gut” courses and maintaining a B average, which makes the slippery slope to addiction even slipperier and does little to prepare them for an employment environment where over the long run, their skill set is much more important than who they know.

Warning signs go unnoticed

Thus, the warning signs of addiction can go unnoticed. There are more addicted college students than you might think:

One-fifth of 18-to-25-year-olds are classified as needing treatment for alcohol or illicit drug use.2


And more expensive schools aren’t impervious to this problem. Quite the opposite! College students from well-off families are even more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and need treatment. Compared to young adults in the bottom wealth quartile, those in the top wealth quartile are:

  • three times more likely to engage in heavy episodic drinking3;
  • almost 25 percent more likely to consume alcohol in general; and
  • almost twice as likely to use marijuana.

A self-perception problem

Unfortunately, on top of the substance use problem, there’s also a self-perception problem. A shockingly high percentage (96 percent!) of young adults who need treatment don’t believe they need it. So how are parents really to know when alcohol and drug use becomes a problem for their son or daughter? Dig in. Ask hard questions. Set high expectations. Ask to see transcripts and grades.

Your student may legally be an adult, but take advantage of their financial dependence to exert leverage to keep them on track – and course-correct when necessary.  Proof is in performance, not intentions, so if a pattern of academic failure and broken promises becomes common, seek professional advice and consider drug testing.

1 Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., and Schulenberg, J. E., (2013). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2012: Volume 2, College students and adults ages 19–50. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.

2 “Young Adults’ Need for and Receipt of Alcohol and Illicit Drug Use Treatment: 2007.” National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 25 June 2009. Web. 24 June 2014.

3 Patrick, Megan E., Ph.D, Patrick Wightman, Ph.D, Robert F. Schoeni, Ph.D, and John E. Schulenberg, Ph.D. “Socioeconomic Status and Substance Use Among Young Adults: A Comparison Across Constructs and Drugs.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 73.5 (2012): 772-82. PMC. Web. 23 June 2014.

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