Every day newspapers carry heartbreaking stories about young adults lost to drug addiction and drug overdose. Families are making their private tragedies public as a way of educating others about the prevalence of substance use disorders in college-age young adults. Colleges are also taking action, such as instituting on-campus recovery programs and counseling. Opioids are the fastest-growing and hardest-hitting drug problem, but they are not the only route to addiction for college students. Recent studies have shown that young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 are the biggest abusers of not only opioid pain relievers but also anti-anxiety medicine and ADHD medication. Marijuana use among college-age users has also increased. How vulnerable is your child to drug or alcohol addiction? Consider these factors:
- Family history. It’s common for people with addiction to have a family history of drug or alcohol problems. While not everyone who is predisposed to addiction follows that path, college students with parents and grandparents who have a substance abuse problem may have more of a predilection toward use. They may also be more vulnerable when stressed or under peer pressure.
- Mental illness. Drugs and alcohol are frequently used to manage symptoms of mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. Sometimes these issues have yet to be diagnosed in young people. In other cases, young adults may be frightened by or unable to cope with their symptoms or they may go off their medications.
- Unresolved trauma. Studies have shown that trauma can lead to self-destructive and addictive behaviors. It helps to use the analogy of a tornado. It starts off like a small storm and, if not attended to or worked through, it gets bigger and bigger until it grows into a tornado.
- Research has shown that some people are more likely to have issues with alcohol based on their metabolism. While there are many chemical factors involved with the breakdown and elimination of alcohol in the body, some individuals inherit enzymes that can make them more vulnerable to alcohol-related problems. This might explain why one student can drink more alcohol more frequently and not develop a problem while another student succumbs to addiction.
- College environment and peer influence. Students often come to big universities from smaller towns and have to figure out how to succeed academically and socially. Partying is a daily part of college life and students’ social lives often revolve around drinking or using drugs.
- Academic pressure and performance. College students may take drugs to keep up with schoolwork, improve focus or get better grades. They may take Adderall ― a drug prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ― to help cram for exams or stay up and write papers. Using Adderall and other illicit “study drugs” has become a trend on college campuses.
- Failure to thrive. Some students haven’t yet developed the life skills or emotional maturity to thrive in the college arena. This hampers their ability to make wise choices. College, for them, is a smorgasbord of temptations and they end up following the lead of others and getting easily distracted. Without family there to support and guide them, they may not have the anchoring needed to resist drugs and alcohol.
Catching Up on Emotional Development
It’s important that families have an awareness of the ways in which their college-age child may be vulnerable to addiction and take action to address it at the first sign of trouble. Drug and alcohol use impacts the developing brain and halts emotional growth. Young adults who abuse substances in college may drop out of school or struggle to launch into adulthood. The good news is that, with youth on their side, the future can be reclaimed with treatment. If addressed quickly, parents can help their children develop the skill set needed to forge their way in the world independently and responsibly. This can help make college a place to spread their wings rather than a disruptive experience.