Key Strategies for Avoiding Alcohol and Drugs During College

The experience of using alcohol and drugs among young adults in college and university could be considered at the level of users’ main motives, rather than as something to portray with scare tactics. After all, drinking, for example, will be encountered later in life even in professional settings, where moderation should already have been learned.

In this day and age, perhaps the best new strategies for helping college students avoid abusing alcohol and drugs will be a combination of (a) understanding their motives for experimenting with or abusing substances, and (b) understanding the environments in which problem behaviors are valorized or provided space to grow worse.

In terms of prevention and avoidance of drinking, or taking illicit and prescription drugs, we will consider the issue in two ways whenever possible: first, how students themselves can steer clear of the distraction of mind-altering or body-stimulating substances, and second, how institutions and society can better manage spaces so that young people are not enabled to flirt with disaster.

Statistics on Substance Abuse

According to research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH) in 2012, almost 10% more students aged 18-22 had drank in the last month compared to the same age range who were not in college. The numbers, too, are provocative: 60.3% of students aged 18-22 had drank in the last month.

What does this information tell us? First, the experience of drinking (or altered states generally, which would also apply to illicit or pharmaceutical drugs) is popular and attractive. Second, the campus environment or just the college social scene appear to be conducive for drinking. Third, with such a considerable number of students experimenting with alcohol or drugs (since they are often found together) this would qualify as a major public health issue — one which it would not be surprising to find directly impacting many areas of society (including the economy, public health, or percentages of adult addicts, for instance).

Statistics about alcohol consumption and abuse are firmer than figures about illicit drug use or perhaps the recreational use of pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medications, but they are all more or less seen in the basic numbers that reflect a culture of using substances, including the college campuses that appear to foster that culture (with its drug subcultures).

One indicative fact, from the well-known ongoing study called ‘Monitoring the Future’ by the National Institute of Drug Addiction (NIDA), is that about 15% of high school seniors (2013) had made recreational use of a prescription, pharmaceutical drug. Marijuana use is on the rise, while conventional favorites like cocaine, tobacco and even liquor are not growing, if not declining. These facts show a changing landscape for drug use as the same youngsters enter college, where they might access more options.

How Widespread and Common Is Substance Abuse?

The above figures described drinking (once within the past month), whereas two other important markers were also studied, which are binge drinking andheavy drinking. The numbers on these behaviors tell the broader story of just how prevalent and how dangerous the college drinking epidemic is today.

If it sounds odd to speak of the abuse of drinks and drugs as an ‘epidemic’ then it highlights the fact that our society is still in denial about the negative impacts of these substances (including misused pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter formulas) and how permissive social spaces are towards substances in general. An unstoppable wave of new thinking in society about drinking and taking drugs has not happened in the same way as it did in the anti-smoking movement. This is because of improperly disseminated information about the relatively harsh effects and consequences of alcohol misuse, which include all sorts of deaths and tragedies, for instance:

  • accidental deaths like drowning while drinking
  • alcohol poisoning (common when kids pass out drunk)
  • increased aggression leading to fights or crime
  • increased sexual aggression leading to date rape
  • drunk driving fatalities
  • possible brain damage and physical exhaustion from binge or heavy drinking, let alone the use of drugs

We can take the simplest data and statistics to extrapolate the larger human factors (psychological, environmental, societal, and so on). Let’s look at the percentage of youth aged 18-22 who had experienced ‘binge drinking’, which is five or more alcoholic drinks in one session, often as fast as in two hours. Just over 40% of college students had binged on liquor, while only 35% of non-students the same age had binged. Again, we are getting a picture about campus life that perhaps is more illuminating — with regards preventing abuse and addiction — than relying upon explanations that both marginalize student drinkers and demonize substances quite common in our society.

The more dangerous kind of drinking, termed ‘heavy drinking’, which is five or more drinks per session and five or more sessions per month, is the more critical marker for predicting individuals likely to become adult alcoholics and drug users. The number for college students is just over 14% while only just under 11% for those not involved with college campuses.

The research by the National Institute of Health calculates that almost 1800 deaths (including motor vehicle accidents) of college students aged 18-24 occur yearly. That total might include this country’s future doctors, writers, musicians, humanitarians, and so forth.

Other kinds of yearly data also are compelling about the seriousness of alcohol and drug abuse for this country, with repercussions to the economy, health care system, and brain trust of the nation. Those types of facts include a shockingly high number (around 690,000 cases) of students aged 18-24 who are assaulted by drunkpeers. 97,000 students experience a sexual assault or date rape. 20% of college students could be considered to have an ‘alcohol use disorder’; 25% of college students relate that their drinking has negatively impacted academic performance in a variety of ways. (Read the full NIH report.)

drug free zone

Effects of Substances on Students

As analysts point out, today’s college and university students are the adults, professionals and leaders of tomorrow. They are also America’s human resource (and every country’s own resource), if viewed in the cold facts of economics and government research.

John Clapp, who heads the Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Violence Prevention at the Education Development Center (EDC), urges that a ‘broad-based approach that targets students who show clinical signs of addiction while also addressing the environmental factors such as zoning and liquor licenses’ is needed at US colleges.

Clapp’s perspectives beg the question that there may be possible clashes in university communities and college campuses between local economics (the profitability of bars near campus, for example) and the correct curtailment of drinking opportunities.

We must not forget that an environment in which alcohol and even illicit drug use is more or less tolerated also distracts or hurts those students who are not attracted to drinking and getting high while studying. There are tremendously powerful forms of peer pressure whenever some students are partying (at some notorious campuses, seemingly the majority) and others remain more focused on learning.

Ways to Avoid Drugs and Alcohol in College

As we said, two basic approaches to preventing the distraction of alcohol and drugs for the country’s college students might be to look from the students’ and the institutions’ points of view at the problem. In the past, the former hard-line methods by government agencies, schools and local law enforcement departments were not found effective enough; today, an integrative model in which institutions focus upon the experiences of students, both before and after using mind-altering substances, would include their motivations and attraction to those experiences.

From Students’ Points of View

There are, actually, many activities and experiences that will provide anybody — and especially vivacious young people — with plenty of physical, mental and emotional stimulation. These are natural thrills, enjoyed because of the body’s own responses to exciting life events instead of relying upon artificial triggers (alcohol and drugs) that alter body chemistry.

Athletics or structured foreign-studies programs are good, easy examples. Basically, most college campuses are literally packed with opportunities to experience much more than the high that students settle for by abusing alcohol or drugs.

Maybe the best way for college students (and all college-aged young people) to stay clear of alcohol and drugs during this vital time of their developing lives would be simply to associate with others who want to focus on studies. Bucking the prevailing atmosphere of pressure to drink from commercial interests or peers is the main hurdle.

The next vital step for prevention is simply to treat alcohol use disorders or drug addictions as public health issues, rather than public safety issue only. The fact is, most college students (and their parents) arrive with high hopes and ambitions, in possession of nurtured good health, and deserve to inhabit environments without the pressure to get high artificially, from so many angles — least of all the campus community itself.

Institutional Prevention Methods

Any institutional framework or plan of action for preventing alcohol and drug abuse by students in college would require, according to experts, a much closer examination of why young people are attracted to the substances, what kinds of experiences they afford, and, the environments in which this exploratory behavior can go unchecked — surprisingly, research shows that college and university campuses are not made into safe havens cleared of debaucherous activities, as they should be. Without this empathic approach, much time and money will be wasted upon demonizing substances and scaring students into avoidance.

The truth is that for a ‘drug society’ and a society that drinks to excess — with a shockingly high percentage of people out on the streets while using pharmaceuticals like anti-depressants — to use draconian measures that alienate or shame the use of alcohol and drugs for young adults is highly self-contradictory. The older combative approach does not work in this much changed day and age; our time and our global society are quite distinct from the Cold War era and Reagan’s War on Drugs.

Experts are agreeing that simple things can be done sooner, such as a systematic program of distributing cold facts about alcohol and drugs to college students in the course of ordinary health-clinic visits, which one study published by the US National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, clearly shows.

Most of the reform needs to address the simple, problematic fact that over half the country’s college students are distracted by enticements to using alcohol or drugs. Reaching a solution could simply be a matter of better public relations, information distribution, and local commitments to sacrifice business for safer campus communities where sober students can be the norm.