In popular culture, learning is not the only thing that takes place at colleges and universities in the United States. From watching movies and television shows, one might think that college students do more partying than actual studying.
But while these stories are aimed at entertaining people, they also reveal a darker side of U.S. higher education. Large numbers of college students drink alcohol or use other drugs. Some even combine the two.
In fact, new research suggests that many students turn to drugs and alcoholic drinks as a way of reducing mental stress and dealing with other issues. And experts worry that this could lead to problems for them later in life.
Most U.S. colleges and universities offer students some form of mental health services, either at the school or off-campus.
In 2017, the American Psychological Association found that the number of students seeking help at campus counseling centers rose by 30 percent between 2009 and 2015. Yet overall college and university attendance rose only by 5 percent during that period.
Many of the students questioned listed stress, anxiety and depression as their reasons for seeking help.
In order to better understand the issue, the American Addiction Centers asked 980 current and former college students how they dealt with stress. The organization released its findings earlier this year.
It found that nearly 60 percent of the students had turned to alcohol as a way of coping with stress at some point. Around 26 percent had used medications like Adderall, which is meant to increase energy levels and focus, without permission from a doctor. And nearly half of the students had combined such drugs with alcohol.
Lawrence Weinstein is chief medical officer at the American Addiction Centers. He says there are many reasons why college students feel stressed, anxious and depressed. They are trying to complete difficult study programs, develop relationships, join social groups and work at part- or even full-time jobs.
But those are also all issues that every generation of students has faced, Weinstein added. The difference for the current generation is that there is a whole new set of problems for them to deal with on top of the old ones.
This includes the fact that the cost of higher education has risen sharply in recent years, leading to record levels of U.S. student loan debt in 2018. In addition, the admissions process at many colleges and universities has grown increasingly competitive.
“Since there are so many factors that conflict with one another, it could be … more stressful for students to learn to balance the…challenges and excitements in their lives,” Weinstein told VOA.
Yet Simone Lambert argues that the pressures that lead to drug and alcohol abuse may start well before a young person goes to college.
Lambert is president of the American Counseling Association. She suggests that in general, one in five people experience some sort of mental health issue during their life. In some cases, she noted, students just entering college are already dealing with things like stress, anxiety or depression.
Lambert said that most people going to college in the U.S. for the first time are 18 or 19 years old. This is an age at which many people are open to experimentation, including trying substances like drugs and alcohol.
“They’re trying to figure out their identity, their career goals. And just being out on their own without having the supports that they had in their high schools, in their home life, there’s a lot of changes that go on,” she noted. “And unfortunately, substance use is something that is accessible to them at that age that hasn’t been accessible before.”
Lawrence Weinstein points out that the main problem with experimenting with drugs at this age is the long term effect. In the short term, alcohol slows the nervous system and can make a person feel calm. And drugs like Adderall may help a student focus their attention on school work. But the human brain is not fully developed until a person is well into their twenties.
Substance use and abuse during developmental periods can eventually lead to problems with memory and the ability to experience pleasure, Weinstein added. And it can also lead to continuing dangerous behaviors later in life.
Most campus counseling centers offer programs especially designed to educate students about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. They also try to inform students about healthy ways of dealing with stress, such as getting healthy amounts of exercise and sleep. But Weinstein and Lambert agree the best way for students to avoid problems is through parental involvement and school administrators shaping campus culture.
Schools must do their best to provide plenty of activities for students outside of classes that do not involve drugs, alcohol or partying, they say. And parents must have open discussions with their children that do not make them afraid to be honest about these issues.
I’m Pete Musto.
And I’m Dorothy Gundy.
Words in This Story
stress – n. a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life and work
campus – n. the area and buildings around a university, college or school
counseling – n. advice and support that is given to people to help them deal with problems and make important decisions
anxiety – n. fear or nervousness about what might happen
focus – n. a main purpose or interest
factor(s) – n. something that helps produce or influence a result
challenge(s) – n. something that is hard to do
excitement(s) – n. a thing or activity that gives a person a feeling of eager enthusiasm and interest
accessible – adj. able to be used or obtained