Preventing Substance Abuse in College

Alcohol tends to be the substance of choice on most college campuses, but it is not the only cause for concern. Marijuana is reportedly the most commonly used illicit drug by college students. LSD, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine use also occurs. Several legal drugs are also abused illegally by college students including stimulants (study drugs), opioids, and sedatives.
Evidence Based
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Substance Abuse in College Students

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that approximately four out of five college students consume alcohol. About half of all college-aged drinkers engage in binge drinking. The use of marijuana, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs is also on the rise among this age group. 

Surveys show college students decide to drink alcohol or use drugs for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Peer pressure
  • Easy availability
  • Curiosity
  • Relaxation
  • Part of the college lifestyle, especially for those involved in Greek organizations
  • Relief of social anxiety
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Risks & Dangers

College students face a greater risk when consuming alcohol or using drugs. This is due to their age, lifestyle, and other challenges that come with life on campus. Some of the risks and dangers of substance abuse in college include:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Legal problems
  • Drunk driving
  • Sexual assault
  • Short- and long-term physical health problems

Drugs of Choice among College Students

Alcohol tends to be the substance of choice on most college campuses, but it is not the only cause for concern. Marijuana is reportedly the most commonly used illicit drug by college students. LSD, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine use also occurs. 

Several legal drugs are also abused illegally by college students. These include:

  • Opioids — such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, morphine, and fentanyl. All of these drugs result in a euphoric high or ability to go without sleep for long periods when abused
  • Stimulants — such as Adderall and Ritalin, which improve concentration and cognitive enhancement, but also produce euphoria and increased libido
  • Sedatives — such as Valium and Xanax, which both produce a euphoric high and induce relaxation
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Substance Abuse Prevention Programs in College

One of the best ways to deal with substance abuse in college is to prevent it from happening before it develops into an addiction. Some of the resources that can reduce incidences of substance abuse on campus include:

  • Sober activities and alternatives to the party circuit
  • Mental health support
  • Promotion of sobriety or safe alcohol consumption in campus policies
  • Family involvement in substance abuse prevention and treatment
  • Drinking prevention programs

There is evidence that a student’s first few weeks on campus set the tone for his or her overall experience, especially when it comes to the use of alcohol or drugs. 

College students just arriving on campus face the highest risk for heavy drinking and developing dangerous substance use habits. Reasons for this might include peer pressure, the freedom of being away from home, and the pressure of meeting new friends and wanting to fit in.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Mental health issues and substance abuse have a link for people of any age, but it is especially concerning for college students. Students with mental illness have a higher risk of developing problems with drugs and alcohol, so they are especially vulnerable in an environment in which these things are so readily available and consumption is so accepted by peers.

Some of the most common mental health disorders that lead to substance abuse include:

  • Social anxiety
  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Generalized anxiety

It is important to note that not every student with a mental health disorder will turn to a substance for support. Although they are linked, depression and anxiety do not cause substance abuse, especially when other support resources are available.

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Addiction Treatment Options

Addiction treatment is important for college students with substance abuse or addiction issues. Many programs are tailored to the needs of young adults and provide the flexibility and guidance needed for college students.

Many of these programs are similar to other types of substance abuse treatment and follow the same steps that include:

  • Assessment
  • Detoxification and withdrawal
  • Participation in treatment approaches that include medication-assisted therapy, group therapy, behavioral therapy, and family counseling
  • Aftercare

In addition to traditional substance abuse treatment programs, such as 12-step programs or inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation facilities, college students have access to a variety of other resources to help them.

Where Should College Students Look for Help?


It might be difficult for college students to ask for help from their parents and other family members when dealing with a substance abuse issue. However, these people are often the best and most supportive resources. Not only are they invested in the student’s well-being and health, but they might also be able to provide financial support for treatment.

On-campus Mental and Medical Health Facilities

Most colleges have on-campus health facilities and support groups. The staff understands how prevalent substance abuse within the college community is. Addiction programs might be available onsite or they might offer referrals to nearby addiction programs.

Medical Professionals

Doctors, psychologists, and other medical professionals can provide diagnosis and referrals to effective treatment programs for college students.

Government Agencies

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a treatment facility locator for college students. This tool makes it easier to find local facilities for young adults.

Ready to Make a Change?


Pedrelli, Paola, et al. “College Students: Mental Health Problems and Treatment Considerations.” Academic Psychiatry, vol. 39, no. 5, 21 Aug. 2014, pp. 503–511,, 10.1007/s40596-014-0205-9.

Guidance to States and School Systems on Addressing Mental Health and Substance Use Issues in Schools. 

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Updated on: July 2, 2020
Michael Bayba
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
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