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Addiction Among High School and College Students

Evaluating an Individual’s Treatment Needs
Addiction Among High School and College Students


Tdolescents and young adults in high school and college face many unique pressures and stressors in their lives. Coupled with an underdeveloped frontal lobe, the region of the brain responsible for impulse control, decision-making, and mood regulation, these particular age groups may be prone to substance abuse.

High school and college students may be more influenced by social pressures and more likely to engage in risky behaviors than other age groups. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), by the time individuals reach their senior year of high school, 70 percent will have tried alcohol, 50 percent will have abused an illicit drug, 40 percent will have smoked a cigarette, and 20 percent will have used a prescription drug recreationally, or for nonmedical purposes.

Alcohol is the number one substance of abuse for this demographic, with marijuana being the top drug of choice, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Adolescent Health. The Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of 2014 reported the following statistics for use of an illicit drug in the past year or lifetime prevalence of alcohol use among teen and young adults:

Any illicit drug use:

  • 1college student2th graders and college students: 39 percent
  • Young adults aged 19-28: 38 percent
  • 10th graders: 30 percent
  • 8th graders: 15 percent

students and amphetaminesYoung adults or teenagers may feel that alcohol and/or drugs may help them fit in socially. Substance abuse can reduce inhibitions, and raise self-confidence levels temporarily. Drugs and alcohol can potentially numb or minimize difficult emotions for a short time and may provide a desired escape from reality.

Some drugs, such as stimulants like amphetamines, 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. Between 2008 and 2014, amphetamine usage among college students in the year leading up to the MTF survey almost doubled from 5.7 percent to 10.1 percent.

Using drugs or alcohol at a young age before the brain is fully developed can create a host of emotional, physical, social, behavioral, and interpersonal issues, however. Abuse of alcohol and drugs by high school and college student may present unique circumstances wherein specialized treatment methods are ideal to foster a healthy lifestyle for a long-term recovery.

Effects of Substance Abuse on Growing Brains

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, and the manner in which an individual experiences pleasure and reward. Abusing 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.

NIDA reports that the brain may not be fully developed until about a person’s mid-20s or so. Using drugs or alcohol before this point can lead to problems with memory and other cognitive functions; increased risk for health problems or the potential contraction of an infectious disease due to heightened hazardous behaviors that may include risky sexual encounters; drop in grades and difficulties at school; strain on family relationships; lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed; and possible mental health problems.

Overdose, accidents, injuries, and becoming the victim of assault are also valid concerns when it comes to substance abuse in this demographic. This is exacerbated by the fact that college or high school students may abuse large amounts of substances in one sitting. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) publishes that four out of five college students drink alcohol, and half do so through binge drinking (which is raising the blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, above the legal limit of 0.08 g/dL). Similarly, for high schools students, nearly 40 percent of 12th graders report drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, over 20 percent admit to daily binge drinking in the past two weeks, and almost 25 percent report riding in a motor vehicle with an impaired driver, according to the HHS Office of Adolescent Health. Alcohol is illegal for those under age 21 in the United States, partially because of how detrimental it can be to a young person’s physical and psychological development.

alcoholism and ageAlcohol and drug usage before the brain is fully formed may increase the risk for developing addiction as well. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that in 2014, approximately 15.4 percent of individuals aged 18 and older who suffered from alcohol abuse or dependency had abused alcohol before the age of 14, while only 3.8 percent had alcohol abuse or dependency problems when they waited until at least the age of 18 to try alcohol for the first time. Results were similar for marijuana abuse, with 11.5 percent of those age 18 or older abusing or dependent on the drug after first using it before the age of 14, while only 2.6 percent of those dependent or abusing marijuana had initiated usage of the drug after the age of 18, according to the NSDUH. This shows a direct correlation between the age someone starts using a psychoactive substance and future substance abuse or dependency issues. High school or college student substance abuse may therefore be a path toward addiction.

Specific Treatment Needs for High School and College Students

High school and college students may not have all the necessary cognitive tools to handle some of the daily stressors that may surround them, and alcohol or drugs can seem like the answer. Childhood trauma, genetic factors, and a person’s surrounding environment may all contribute to future substance abuse and addiction.

high school and college studentsDifferent age groups are likely to have different needs when it comes to treatment methods. Teens and young adults are more likely to hide their substance abuse and deny that treatment is necessary than older adults. They may also be less likely to think they need help and recognize that their substance abuse and resulting behaviors are cause for concern. NIDA reports that only 10 percent of those aged 12-17 who need treatment for drug or alcohol abuse actually get it with the large majority of those who do receive treatment being referred through the criminal justice system. Alcohol and drug usage may increase risky and dangerous behaviors, which may include engaging in criminal behaviors as well as potentially heightening aggressive, violent, or erratic actions.

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. 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.

Treatment for drug or alcohol abuse may be performed in either an outpatient or residential setting, depending on the specific needs of the individual. Someone who is heavily dependent on drugs or alcohol, and has been abusing them for a long time, may benefit from medical detox services and comprehensive residential treatment. A person with a strong support system at home who has been abusing substances for a shorter time period, and is less dependent on them, may do well in outpatient treatment.

support and teen treatment

Support services and continuing care are helpful for young adult or teenagers struggling with substance abuse. 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. NIDA also reports that teaching both families and young people about substance abuse, addiction, and the science behind these issues can help teenagers and young adults to make healthier life choices.

Co-Occurring Mental Illness

Both addiction and mental illness are often considered developmental diseases, as 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. Mental illness may contribute to substance abuse, and substance abuse may worsen symptoms of mental illness.

When both mental illness and substance abuse or dependency co-occur, specialized integrated treatment is often the optimal care method. Ideally, medical and mental health professionals work together to implement and plan a treatment model that takes care for both disorders into account simultaneously.

Young adults and adolescents suffering from mental health concerns may think about or attempt suicide. It is the third leading cause of death in this age group, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP).

major depressive disorderMental illness increases the odds that a person may abuse or become dependent on drugs or alcohol, and substance abuse often interferes with mental health treatment. Mood disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorder, may be common in individuals who also suffer from a substance use disorder (SUD) at rates between 32 and 56 percent of the time, according to the journal Addiction Science & Clinical Practice. Integrated treatment can help improve mental health issues related to both substance abuse and a potential mental health disorder.

Behavioral therapies can help teach high school and college students better ways to manage stress and cope with everyday triggers that may encourage substance abuse. 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.

Adolescent and young adult mental health and/or substance abuse treatment should take into account specific gender, cultural, ethnic, psychological development, and relations with family, friends, and the community overall. No two treatment plans may be exactly alike as each individual will have specific circumstances that may dictate the most beneficial method of care.

Resources for Help

Young adults and teenagers may not feel that they need treatment, and families may inadvertently enable individuals to continue patterns of problematic drug or alcohol abuse in a misguided attempt to protect them. It may feel socially unacceptable to seek treatment, or it may feel “normal” for teens to be experimenting with drugs or alcohol. While some level of experimentation is to be expected, when drug or alcohol use gets out of control and families start to notice behavioral or personality changes, help is needed. These changes may include social withdrawal; secrecy and denial over substance abuse; drastic changes in sleeping, eating, or physical appearance; grades slipping; and a lack of interest in things that may have been important before.

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. Insurance may cover mental health and substance abuse treatment services in many cases.


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Some important resources for high school and college students in need of substance abuse treatment, and their families, include:

Individual schools or colleges may also have resources for families, teenagers, and young adults who may benefit from specialized substance abuse, addiction, or mental health treatment, as may local state, city, or county health departments.

  • Behavioral Health Locator: This feature provides a list of local mental health and substance abuse treatment providers sanctioned by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in the United States.
  • NIDA for Teens: This online resource features drug and alcohol facts as well as treatment information, educational materials, and preventative measures for families and individuals.
  • National Helpline: This crisis line is serviced by SAMHSA 24/7. It is confidential, complimentary, and can provide information and resources for families and individuals in need of substance abuse and/or mental health services.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: This helpline connects individuals to a live professional counselor at a local crisis center at any time of day or night.
  • Alateen: This division of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is designed to support younger members with regular group meetings, fellowship, and 12-Step programming.
  • SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions): This organization provides resources, education, and events with the intent of helping teens and young adults to make healthy choices.
  • Poison Help Line: This helpline provides confidential medical advice through one of the 55 American Association of Poison Control Centers. These centers are staffed around the clock to help individuals who fear they have been exposed to dangerous toxins or may be suffering from a negative reaction to drugs or alcohol. Staffers can provide necessary information to potentially reverse adverse effects and provide free help to those in need. If an overdose is suspected, it should be considered a medical emergency, and immediate medical attention should be sought instead by calling 911.
  • Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder: This is operated by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The tool provides help with finding a licensed psychiatrist.
  • Self Test for Teenagers: This is a service by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCAAD) that may provide teens with a better understanding of their potential problematic drug and/or alcohol use. It is merely a guide and not a substitute for a professional evaluation.

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About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of Sunrise House is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More