Substance Abuse & its Pull on Academics

As spring settles in and the semester comes to an end, you may be noticing a change in your son’s academic performance. He may be staying out later, coming home drunk on the weekends, and saying that there is no studying to be done. He is acting like everything is under control, but for some reason, you’re still worried. He leaves for college in the fall and right now, he should be preparing his dive into that next chapter—because come September, he’s on his own.

If you are at all worried about a loved one’s drinking or drug-using habits, the time to intervene is now. Substance use is widespread throughout campuses nationwide. And, despite all of the negative consequences it carries, the acceptance of partying in college is still rife among students and many parents alike. Today, experimentation has been assumed as a normalcy, and the long-term consequences of drug abuse have gotten pushed to the wayside. Yet substance use still has a pervasive, subtle way of interfering with a student’s success—particularly in academics. Thus, it is so important to prepare now, and help your son understand his priorities while away.

Very few studies have touched on the connection between an individual’s academic decline and substance use. But consider this: Just as substance use is common in secondary education, so are dropouts. 7,000 students drop out of school everyday. Without a completed education, these students are more likely to have health problems, earn less income over their lifetimes, and to be incarcerated. Of all college dropouts in the United States, 28 percent are regular alcohol users. 

So while worrying about a few beers each night seems nearly irrelevant, the binge-drinking epidemic amongst US college campuses should remain a concern. More than 40 percent of all college students in the U.S. have had five or more drinks in a row during the past two weeks, and almost 20 percent of them meet the medical criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Unfortunately, though, less than 5 percent of these students seek treatment. 

The link between alcohol consumption and an individual’s academic performance is one that we can no longer ignore. In a recent survey, it was found that students with an A average consume about 4 drinks per week, B students have 6 drinks per week, C students average 8 drinks per week, and students with Ds or Fs consume at least 10 drinks per week. 

does drug use affect grades?

Early alcohol consumption is not the only concern, either. Of an estimated 2.8 million drug initiates in 2013, over 70 percent of them were recorded to first use marijuana. And while many do not see the drug as a great risk, early chronic marijuana use has in fact been linked to major declines in an individual’s IQ, of up to 8 points. One study in particular found that students who use marijuana less than weekly are 2.6 times more likely to be school dropouts that non-users. Those who used marijuana at least weekly were 5.8 times more likely to drop out of school.

But why is this the case?

Drugs and alcohol affect the chemical systems in our brain: areas that are critical to learning and memory, judgment and decision-making, and behavior control. As addiction develops, it impairs our skills to problem solve, to organize, and our ability to plan ahead. As a result, constant use makes it difficult for practical decisions to be made, ultimately taking a great toll on how an individual approaches education. For example, a student may procrastinate on a paper, because he’d rather go out with his friends. He may then skip class because the assignment didn’t get done. If he does end up going to class, he may not be able to fully pay attention, perhaps because he’s too busy thinking about the good time he had the night before, or the headache he has now.

Drugs of abuse target the brain’s rewards system, causing an individual to release up to ten times the amount of dopamine that a normal, pleasurable activity would. As drug use makes a person feel this excess of euphoria, it leads to repeated use in order to achieve the same effects. This only adds to the cycle, allowing individuals to not only develop a drug-using habit, but a habit of putting it above other priorities, such as studying. In a national survey of college students, 21.8 percent of students reported that they performed poorly on a test or assignment due to alcohol use in the past year, while 30.7 percent missed a class for the very same reason. 

Alcohol lingers in the body up to 48 hours after consumption, affecting how information is both processed and stored in that allotted time. While you may believe that alcohol only impairs the memory of events that happen within a state of drunkenness (“blacking out”), intoxication actually affects long-term memories in the hippocampus. “If you study for four hours, then go drinking,” a Duke University study explains, “it affects this anchoring process.” 

While we want to believe, “This won’t happen to me,” the fact is addiction can affect anyone who makes substance use a habit. It stems from the way our brains process drugs, and adolescents and young adults are especially prone to dependence. Because their brains are still developing, learning, and conditioning, constant drug use has a greater likelihood of leaving an imprint—impairing their overall cognitive function and causing them to seek out drugs regularly.

If you notice your son’s grades are dropping, or he is simply not enjoying the classes he used to; if you find that he goes out every night, but never has enough time to study, you may want to consider substance use as a contributing factor. The link between substance abuse and education does exist, and you can find more facts about their correlation in our most recent infographic, here.  Please call Turnbridge today for more information on how to prevent drug abuse in college, and further educate your son on its long-term effects. The time is now. We should take advantage of what education has to offer, and not take it so for granted. We have to help our youth to seek out long-term success, and employ all that college has to offer.