Drug & Alcohol Addiction Among High School & College Students

Substance use disorders can occur at any point in a person’s lifetime, but teens and college students are at an increased risk for developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol. We’ll explain how common substance use is among teens and young adults, why it occurs, and how to get help for a student struggling with addiction.

How Common Is Substance Use Among Students?

co-occurring disorders

It is fairly common for teens and college students to experiment with alcohol and drugs. While addiction statistics for different groups shows that substance use and misuse can occur at any age, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), by the time young people reach their senior year of high school:

  • 70 percent will have tried alcohol.
  • 50 percent will have used an illicit drug.
  • 40 percent will have smoked a cigarette.
  • 20 percent will have used a prescription drug recreationally, or for non-medical purposes.

Alcohol is the number one substance of abuse for this demographic, followed by marijuana, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Adolescent Health. Recent findings from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that more than 50 percent of college students between the ages of 18 to 22 used alcohol in the past month; 33 percent of those students engaged in binge drinking

Further data collected in the most recent report from Monitoring the Future indicated that substance use continues to be endemic among students.

  • 81.8 percent of young adults between the ages of 19 and 30 reported using alcohol in the past 12 months; 66.3 percent in the past 30 days.
  • Almost half of people surveyed — 42.6 percent — reported using marijuana.
  • Marijuana use among young adults is at the highest levels ever recorded.
  • 18.3 percent reported using other drugs.

Why Is Substance Misuse Common Among Students?

There are a number of reasons that contribute to substance misuse among students. High school and college students may not have all the necessary cognitive tools to handle some of the daily stressors that they encounter, and alcohol or drugs can seem like the answer. Additionally, many of the contributing factors for substance use disorders, such as trauma, genetic factors, and a person’s environment may all influence a young person’s substance misuse.

Furthermore, young adults or teenagers may feel that alcohol or drugs may help them fit in socially. High school and college students may be more influenced by social pressures and more likely to engage in risky behaviors than other age groups.

Some substances, like amphetamines or prescription drugs like Adderall, may be used to boost energy and help individuals stay awake and focused, making them popular as “study drugs,” especially for college students trying to get ahead academically.

Impact of Substance Use on College & High School Students

NIDA reports that the brain may not be fully developed until about a person’s mid-20s or so. The use of mind-altering substances before the brain is fully developed may lead to negative changes in the brain and its functional capabilities that may have long-lasting effects, the journal Clinical EEG and Neuroscience publishes. Research has shown that drugs and alcohol make chemical changes in the circuitry and pathways in the brain related to:

  • Managing emotions.
  • Making sound decisions. 
  • Mitigating risk-taking behaviors.
  • Controlling impulses. 
  • Motivation levels.
  • The manner in which an individual experiences pleasure and reward.

Students who use drugs are alcohol are at increased risk of both short-term and long-term effects of substance use, including:

How to Treat Addiction in College & High School Students

Treatment plans for young people struggling with addiction are created based on a number of factors, including the needs of the student, the type of drug and frequency of use, and potential co-occurring disorders. Furthermore, different age groups are likely to have different needs when it comes to treatment methods.

Specific medications for addiction may not be approved for use in young people; however, teens may be less likely to suffer from withdrawal side effects and drug cravings than older individuals dependent on drugs or alcohol, NIDA publishes.

Whether in an inpatient setting or outpatient treatment, most treatment models for adolescents and young adults will likely use behavioral therapy models and research-based methods that include both group and individual therapy sessions with groups of peers.

Support services and continuing care are helpful for young adult or teenagers struggling with substance use disorders. Twelve-Step and peer support groups can provide safe places to talk to others with similar circumstances, build a positive network of people, and help prevent relapse. Family counseling, therapy, and support groups are often integral in adolescent or young adult treatment plans as well since families may play a vital role in recovery and sustained abstinence.

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Rehab for Students

When choosing what kind of treatment for yourself or a student in your life, investigating different levels of care is important. Treatment for drug or alcohol use disorders may be performed in either an outpatient or inpatient rehab in New Jersey, depending on the specific needs of the individual.

A person with a strong support system at home, who has been using substances for a shorter time period, or is less dependent on them, may do well in outpatient treatment.

Someone who is heavily dependent on drugs or alcohol, and has been using them for a long time, may benefit from medical detox services and comprehensive residential treatment. Many inpatient treatment services are offered for 30 days, 60 days, or longer — which can work well for many students’ needs for accessing help while still continuing their education.

While many people benefit from engaging in longer-term care, treatment doesn’t necessarily have to be received entirely in a residential setting. Taking part in short-term rehab programs that can include month-long outpatient programs, aftercare programs, and peer support programs can help students maintain their recovery efforts.

Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions & Addiction Among Students

Both addiction and mental health disorders are often considered developmental diseases. 50 percent of all chronic mental illnesses start before the age of 14 and 75 percent by age 24, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports. While mental health disorders do not cause substance use disorders, they can be a contributing factor. Additionally, substance use may exacerbate existing mental health disorders or trigger their onset.

When a young person has a mental health disorder and substance use disorder simultaneously, this is referred to as co-occurring disorders. These can include:

Integrated treatment approaches that address both the mental health and substance use disorders simultaneously are generally considered the most beneficial for treating co-occurring disorders.

Behavioral therapies can help teach high school and college students better ways to manage stress and cope with everyday triggers that may encourage substance use. These therapies can reduce negative thoughts while also raising self-confidence and improving a person’s overall mental health. Problem-solving, communication, and interpersonal relationship skills may be improved, and individuals may replace negative behaviors or actions with more constructive and healthy activities.

Addiction Treatment Resources for Students & Loved Ones

While some level of experimentation with alcohol or drugs by students may be expected, when drug or alcohol use gets out of control and families start to notice behavioral or personality changes, help is often necessary. Young adults and teenagers may not feel that they need treatment, and families may not know where to turn to get their loved one the help that they need.

Many times, treatment may begin with a visit to a primary care provider for information on how to get help and a potential referral for services. Treatment centers, as well as individual schools or colleges may also have resources for families, teenagers, and young adults.

If you are a student struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, or you’re worried about a young person in your life, there are effective treatment options that can help. Contact our helpful and knowledgeable admissions navigators at to learn more about Sunrise House’s different levels of addiction treatment. They can also you learn more about paying for rehab, insurance plans that cover treatment, and how to start the treatment admissions process.

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