Addressing Student Substance Use Among College Students Can Improve Mental Health

Addressing Student Substance Use Among College Students Can Improve Mental Health

Amaura Kemmerer, LICSW 
Executive Vice President of Client Engagement 

Heavy episodic drinking and other drug use among college students remains one of the most significant and complicated problems facing higher education. The consequences for both the students themselves and community at large include: academic failure, attenuation of goals or dropout, health/mental health and addiction problems, impaired driving, unsafe sex, fights, sexual assaults, unintentional injuries, overdose, property damage, vandalism and high security/healthcare costs. Alcohol remains the most widely used substance among college students. Marijuana use among college students, while endorsed at lower levels than alcohol, has seen an increase in the past several years.

Research has shed light on the variety of academic consequences that students experience due to heavy drinking and other drug use. These effects include decreases in quality sleep and time spent studying, resulting in negative impact on GPA, academic performance, and even continuous enrollment in college. However, when students are surveyed about what interferes with their academic achievement, substance use is rarely recognized, or it is identified toward the bottom of a much longer list of concerns such as stress, anxiety or sleep issues, which are the most commonly endorsed items.

Surveys show that heavy drinking in college can lead to regretted decisions, which is the most frequently reported negative consequence among college students. Regretted decisions often result in negative affect, emotions, and depressive thoughts. Alcohol also interferes with quality sleep; sleep deprivation translates into heightened anxiety.

The impact of marijuana on mental health is evolving. While the research has not yet caught up to science available about alcohol, we now know that marijuana reduces quality sleep, leading to next day anxiety; worsens attentional difficulties; increases heart rate, which may be a trigger for students with panic and anxiety, and has a concerning relationship with suicidal ideation. Working with college students to make changes or reductions in drinking and marijuana use can lead to changes and improvement in negative mood or other aspects of mental health.

Over the past decade, there have been significant advances in identifying evidence-based approaches to reducing high-risk drinking among college students.  Many colleges have implemented strategies to impact the culture around high-risk drinking. Individual-level prevention strategies that have been shown to reduce quantity and frequency of high risk drinking as well as related consequences include brief motivational interventions, specifically, BASICS (the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students). Students who are being treated in the counseling center for mental health concerns and who screen positive for alcohol misuse and marijuana use may benefit from a referral to a brief intervention program, often housed in a campus wellness or prevention office, so that the substance use can be addressed simultaneously with the mental health concerns.

The key is ensuring that providers can appropriately assess substance use. It is not uncommon that mental health providers receive minimal training in substance use assessment, despite how much evidence exists showing that substance use can precipitate, result from, and worsen mental health problems. Most college students do not need formal substance abuse treatment while they are in college although it is extremely important to have resources and referral options for students who may need that level of care. College students who are experiencing consequences and/or mental health problems related to their alcohol and marijuana use can often improve through support from a counselor who is trained to assess substance use.

Christie Campus Health offers a multi-modal platform of support designed to meet students where they are in their varying mental health needs. CCH clinicians are trained to assess substance use as a part of a student’s clinical intake. Students can be referred to work with a counselor who has a background in substance use and abuse issues from our expansive network of telehealth and in-person clinicians. Visit our website for more information about Christie Campus Health and our CONNECT@College suite of student mental health and wellness offerings for colleges and universities.

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