Sally is a second-year college student who is finding it difficult to keep up with the demands of academic life. Not only is she on the college track team, but she is under enormous pressure to keep her grades up while she trains for a medical degree.

To cope with these challenges, Sally starts taking Adderall every day to boost her energy and focus. However, due to the excessive stimulation caused by the Adderall, Sally starts drinking alcohol in the evening to help her sleep. Over time, her dependence on these substances leads to physical and mental side effects, which causes her grades to slip. Sally falls into a deep depression and eventually has to take a leave of absence from college.

The above story, while fictional, is an example of how many college students end up abusing substances. While drinking and prescription drug use can seem harmless, some students end up in a vicious cycle as they use drugs to cope with academic demands and emotional stresses. Sally’s example is illustrative of how students can innocently start taking substances and end up in a downward spiral. However, hope is not lost, as there are ways to prevent and treat substance abuse.

Prevalence of Addiction Among College Students

  • It is estimated that more than 6 million young adults meet the criteria for a substance use disorder.
  • According to the 2019 Monitoring the Future survey, the highest rates of cannabis and illicit drug use (e.g., amphetamines, cocaine, hallucinogens, and MDMA) were among college-age students.
  • The 2011-2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that on an average day in the last year, 2,179 full-time college students drank alcohol for the first time, while 1,326 used an illicit drug for the first time.
  • The same survey found that 33% of students engaged in binge drinking in the past month.
  • Over 28.1% of college students have reported misusing a prescription drug in the past year.
  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that an estimated 1,519 college students die each year because of unintentional alcohol-related injuries, including car accidents.

Substances Commonly Abused by College Students

College students are known to abuse a range of substances. Below are the most common.


It is estimated that 4 out of 5 college students drink alcohol. Not only is drinking socially acceptable, but it is commonly consumed at social events, parties, and at fraternities/sororities. For many students, drinking is part of the college experience and is openly encouraged. While social drinking is natural, there are risks involved, especially if it leads to binge drinking.

According to a report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 50% of students have reported binge drinking. The risks involved with binge drinking include alcohol poisoning, loss of consciousness, injury, and even death.

Prescription Drugs

Prescription drug abuse is increasingly common on college campuses. This applies especially to the notorious “study drugs” such as Adderall and Ritalin, which are prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In 2016, roughly 1 in 10 college students reported using Adderall for non-medical reasons in the past 12 months. These stimulant medications improve focus and concentration while boosting energy, allowing students to study at all hours. The issue with prescription stimulants is that many students are unaware of their addictive potential and the physical harm they can cause if they’re misused.

For example, according to CNN, 81% of college students say they don’t see the risk of taking prescription study aids regularly. While these drugs can provide short-term benefits in terms of academic performance, they come with an array of side effects, especially if a person suddenly stops taking them. These include:

  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Increased appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts

Prescription stimulants aren’t the only drugs abused by college students. Other common ones include opioids (e.g., OxyContin, Vicodin) and benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Valium). Opioid medications are sometimes prescribed to students for frequent pain, while Xanax is used for anxiety and sleep problems.

Studies show that roughly 5.5% of college-age people misuse pain medications, while the number of students who abused tranquilizers like Valium and Xanax increased by 450% between 1993 and 2005. College students are also known to abuse these drugs by taking them recreationally to get high.


Cannabis is another widely abused drug among college students. Some studies indicate that the highest usage of cannabis is among people aged 21-22. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health also reports that on an average day during the last year, an estimated 700,000 college students consumed this drug. The widespread use of cannabis is partly due to changing perceptions, especially as it is now legal in some states.

Ecstasy (MDMA)

Ecstasy (MDMA) are often used on the party scene, especially among college-age students, where the use of these drugs more than doubled from 2004 to 2016. Ecstasy is known for its stimulating and psychedelic qualities, and it has become increasingly popular in recent years as a socializing drug.


While not as common as alcohol or prescription drugs, cocaine is another drug commonly abused by college students. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that on an average day in the last year, over 11,000 full-time college students used cocaine. Another study showed that more than 20% of college students were exposed to opportunities to use cocaine in the past year.

Causes of Substance Abuse

There are several reasons why college students abuse substances. While not all students will develop an addiction, there are still risks involved.


While experimentation also occurs during a person’s teen and adolescent years, college is a period that is marked by freedom. Moving away from home and away from one’s parents can spark the desire to socialize and experiment (which includes consuming drugs and alcohol). Individuals who may have refused substances during their high school years may suddenly be tempted to try them out.

Stress and Academic Performance

While college is a fun and exciting time, it is also one of the most stressful periods in a young person’s life. Financial pressure, as well as demands to excel academically, can be difficult to deal with. This can lead some students to turn to prescription drugs as study aids and/or use other substances to let off steam and cope with anxiety and stress.

Misinformation About Substances

Another key component is that many students are misinformed about the dangers of substances. This especially applies to prescription drugs, which individuals often mistakenly assume are safe because they’re given out by doctors. Other misinformation can include the idea that substance use is a normal and acceptable part of the college experience. This can also be because drugs are easily accessible to the college population.

Peer Pressure

Many young adults are greatly influenced by their peers. Being exposed to drugs and alcohol (and seeing their friends consume them) can encourage students to engage in substance abuse to fit in. They may also be easily influenced by other students who are misusing prescription drugs to boost academic performance.

Mental Health Issues

Some college students also turn to drugs and alcohol if they have underlying mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or eating disorders. Substances can provide a way to ease or mask uncomfortable feelings; however, this can be dangerous, as excessive use of substances can exacerbate a person’s depression or anxiety. Therefore, it’s important to seek help right away if you feel you are struggling.

Family History

Individuals who have family members with drug or alcohol abuse issues are at a higher risk of addiction. This can be due to a combination of genetics, socialization, and modeling behavior as a person is regularly exposed to drugs and alcohol in the home.

Normalization of Substance Abuse on Campus

Drug and alcohol use has become normalized on college campuses. Not only are there endless socializing events and parties that encourage drinking and using substances, but pop culture is also full of references that make this activity seem like the norm.

Whether it’s college-themed movies or popular music, substance use and college life have almost become synonymous with each other. When combined with other factors such as fraternity and sorority houses, which have some of the highest incidences of binge drinking, substance abuse becomes a normalized culture in most colleges. Many students feel that these activities are a rite of passage during their college years; therefore, the risks or dangers of substances are often overridden.

Signs of Substance Abuse

Substance use and misuse among teenagers can come with an array of signs and symptoms. Below are ones to keep an eye out for:

  • Skipping classes and/or worsening academic performance.
  • A decline in personal appearance.
  • Withdrawal from friends or family.
  • Reduced enjoyment or participation in activities they once enjoyed.
  • Lying about drug or alcohol use.
  • Spending a great deal of time using and recovering from the effects of alcohol or substances.
  • Exhibiting a need to drink or use drugs to unwind or have a good time.
  • Sudden mood swings.
  • Physical signs such as bloodshot eyes, excessive drowsiness (or hyperactivity), poor concentration, memory issues.
  • Frequent withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, cravings, or depression.
  • Continuing to use substances despite any negative consequences.
  • Legal troubles such as arrests, accidents, or DWIs.
  • Risky behavior such as drinking and driving, engaging in fights, or unprotected sex.

Effects of Drug Abuse on College Students

Frequent drug abuse and/or binge drinking can create lasting consequences for college students. Not only can it damage a student’s grades and academic performance, but it can lead to physical and mental health issues. Some of the potentially damaging effects that substance abuse can have on students include:

  • Decreased or diminished academic performance.
  • Risky behaviors.
  • Development of an alcohol or drug use disorder.
  • Physical health issues such as reduced brain activity, sleep problems, poor concentration, fatigue, lack of coordination, irregular heart rate, weakened immune system, impaired memory, slow reaction times, and cardiovascular or respiratory issues.
  • Poor or worsening mental health (e.g., increased anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts).

Recognizing When You Need Help

Recognizing that you have a problem and knowing when to seek help are important steps to recovery. There are plenty of resources at your disposal, so the key is to not let the stigma of addiction stop you from seeking treatment or help.

Treatment and Support Resources on Campus

If you have a substance abuse problem, one of the first things you can do is seek on-campus healthcare resources. Your campus may also have 24/7 telehealth services for physical or mental health issues.

Also, many colleges run the Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRPs) or Collegiate Recovery Communities (CRCs). These programs promote recovery by providing drug- and alcohol-free opportunities to socialize, as well as offer sober housing, crisis support, and more.

The NIAAA has also collaborated with colleges to develop the College Alcohol Intervention Matrix (CollegeAIM). This program consists of a comprehensive booklet and a website that helps students identify individualized interventions (e.g., education and awareness programs, cognitive-behavioral skills education) to prevent and manage substance abuse on campus.

Other initiatives which can be useful if you have them at your college are campus-based 12-Step groups or meetings, substance abuse counseling, and substance abuse education sessions.

Off-Campus Treatment Options for College Students

There are also off-campus treatment options that you can explore. To start, you could contact national drug abuse hotlines, as well as local support groups such as Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or 12-Step groups.


Depending on the severity of your substance abuse problem, rehab is another option. These vary from inpatient to outpatient programs, and while it may mean taking a temporary leave from your studies, it may offer the best hope for recovery.

These programs are often highly structured and are designed to help you get to the root cause of your addiction while helping you withdraw drugs and alcohol. If you think you can manage rehab and your studies, there are excellent outpatient programs that will allow you to structure therapy around your schedule.

The thing to remember is that it’s better to seek help before it’s too late. Despite how intimidating treatment can seem, you are taking control of your life and paving the way towards a better future.


If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, you are not alone. Treatment and support are readily available. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment.

You can also find a list of treatment centers near you on our website to help get you on the path to recovery.

Key Sources

Lesser, B. (2021). Frequently Drug Abuse by College Students.

Lipari, R., Jean-Francois, B. (2016). A Day in the Life of College Students Aged 18 to 22: Substance Use Facts.

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2019). Drug and Alcohol Use in College-Age Adults in 2018.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (2021). College Drinking.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Prescription Drug Misuse Among College Students.

Welsh, J. W., Shentu, Y., and Sarvey, D. B. (2019). Substance Use Among College Students. Focus, 17(2), 117–127.

Medical Disclaimer

At, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.

We provide our readers with factual, evidence-based content concerning the causes and nature of addiction, as well as available treatment options. However, this informative content is intended for educational purposes only. It is by no means a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. With regard to any addiction-related health concerns, you should always seek the guidance of a qualified, registered physician who is licensed to practice medicine in your particular jurisdiction. You should never avoid or delay seeking professional health care advice or services based on information obtained from our website. Our authors, editors, medical reviewers, website developers, and parent company do not assume any liability, obligation, or responsibility for any loss, damage, or adverse consequences alleged to have happened directly or indirectly as a result of the material presented on