Drug Use Initiation among College Students

substance use among college students

College is a time of transition, as young adults are shifting into a more independent lifestyle and adapting to changes in their day to day responsibilities. It is those first years of college that students truly begin to experience “living on their own,” away from direct adult supervision. As a result, college becomes a time of new and exciting challenges, difficult choices, as well as potentially risky situations. Young adults begin to make behavioral decisions on their own, health decisions on their own, and prioritize on their own without parental oversight. For this reason, substance use becomes more accessible and frequent in college. Whether an act of rebellion, a need to experiment, a celebration, or a stress-mechanism, college substance abuse is a common occurrence across campuses nationwide.

It is widely known that drug and alcohol use among college students is frequent. National studies have shown that one out of every five full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 have used illicit drugs within the past month. Over half have drunk alcohol. These figures are clear. What has remained ambiguous to many parents, educators, and drug professionals, however, is just when the initiation of drug use typically starts. Just when do college students start experimenting with substances for the first time, and is there a way to prevent it?

In 2015, SAMHSA published a report detailing substance use initiation among full-time college students. The report was conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, who asked tens of thousands of respondents, ages 18 to 22, about their first use of addictive substances in the past year. Here is what they found:

  • On an average day, approximately 1,100 to 2,000 full-time college students use alcohol for the first time. During the peak months—June, July, September, and December—the number of first-time drinkers reaches up to 2,500 college students per day.
  • For full-time college students, marijuana abuse most commonly begins in the summer months of June and July. This is also true for inhalant abuse.
  • First nonmedical use of prescription stimulants among college students typically surges during months of April, November, and December. Over the past decade, there were more than 500 new stimulant users per day during those peak months.
  • First time use of cocaine and nonmedical use of prescription painkillers was found to be highest in December for full-time college students.

Tracking substance use initiation, or “first-time use,” can be extremely telling of the drug habits of young adults in college. By revealing periods where drug initiation is most common, we are able to identify which months are of heightened risk for college students and further strategize our prevention efforts both on and off campus.

According to the report conclusions, the summer months are the highest-risk months for first-time drug use among college students. The initiation of alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, inhalants, and hallucinogens is most common in June and July. Students are on a break from college, home with old friends, and free from academic stress in these months. With the warm weather, vacations, and summer happenings around town, it is no wonder why most young adults begin to experiment with new substances during this time. Fortunately, there is opportunity to reduce the risk in these months. Students are coming home and back under parental supervision. Parental monitoring should thus be a major focus. Parents should maintain good communication with their child throughout the summer break: ask questions, track whereabouts, know who your son or daughter is spending time with each night.

While the college students are vulnerable to drug pressures in the summer months, concern should also be placed on the academic year as well. December is a month of extreme vulnerability for college students, who are often trying alcohol, prescription drugs, and cocaine for the first time. Prescription stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin, are also typically initiated in November, December, and April.

The trend is clear: Harder drugs are being used towards the end of college semesters. November and April are great stress periods for college students, who are cramming to finish theses, papers, and projects before the semester comes to a close. They may be misusing stimulant drugs as study aids, to stay awake and complete academic tasks. This may also hold true for December, a stressful time for final exams preceding the winter break. At the beginning of the month, students may use drugs to study all hours of the night. Towards the end of December, however, they may experiment with drugs or alcohol as vacation and holiday celebrations kick off.

The findings from this report indicate that there are prevention opportunities professors and parents can take during the school year. For example, professors may consider holding exams on Mondays, to prevent weekend substance abuse. College staff should set clear-cut drug and alcohol policies across campuses, as well as implement consequences for students who violate the rules. The college community should place more focus on after-class recreational activities, community service, and offer free courses for students looking to get more involved. Enacting collegiate recovery programs across campuses may also help those struggling with a substance use disorder.

The impact of substance use on academics can be severe. Nearly 40 percent of college students experience academic problems due to alcohol, and over one in four drop out of college due to a drinking problem. Drug use greatly affects grades, performance, and one’s ability to learn. Not only this, but young adults are also at great risk for addiction. Like adolescents, college students are a demographic historically vulnerable to substance use initiation as well as drug addiction.

Together, we can increase awareness in parents and young adults alike to reduce addiction among college students. Call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 for information on our drug treatment program for young men.