Addiction Resources For College Students: Finding Help For Yourself Or A Friend

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on

Many college students experience substance abuse due to stress and substance availability. Substance abuse can have a major impact on physical and mental health, but when you know the signs of addiction, you can seek help.

Addiction Resources For College Students

College brings exploration, freedom, and new experiences for young adults. While these changes can feel exciting, they can also create anxiety and mental health concerns.

Between new responsibilities and major life changes, college life puts students under a lot of pressure.

When that pressure combines with easy access to drugs and alcohol, students may use substances as a coping mechanism, leading to substance use disorders (SUDs).

Mental Health Among College Students

Many college students experience mental health struggles, whether or not they have had these struggles prior to college.

College students deal with high amounts of stress, stemming from new experiences, a growing sense of independence, and challenging coursework.

This stress is a risk factor for depression, anxiety, and other emotional and behavioral difficulties.

In fact, according to college mental health research, more than half of college students experience at least one mental health problem.

Addiction Is A Mental Health Condition

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines addiction as a mental health disorder.

Addiction shares several risk factors with other mental health conditions and, as a result, has become a concern for many college students experiencing high stress levels.

People with substance use disorders often also have other mental health disorders, or co-occurring conditions.

These disorders can contribute to each other, creating a cycle of self-medication.

Factors Influencing Substance Use In College

Several factors put students at risk for substance use disorders, many of which concern chronic stress and major life changes.

Financial Stressors

U.S. News & World Report states that college expenses have risen significantly.

Between 2013 and 2023, the cost of attending an in-state public school rose by 175%.
Out-of-state schools and private schools have also become more expensive.

Not only have tuition costs risen, but other costs, such as housing and food expenses, have also grown.

Students’ incomes, however, and their families’ incomes, have not risen at an equivalent pace. As a result, attending college creates more financial stress today than it did in the past.

Some students experience chronic stress as a result, which is a sense of pressure and overwhelm that lasts for a long time.

Chronic stress, according to addiction experts, is a common risk factor for addiction, as some people may begin using substances for relief.

Balancing Responsibilities

Due to rising tuition costs, students often must balance their course loads with a job outside of school, leaving little time available for rest and self-care.

Furthermore, according to the National Education Association (NEA), many students consider dropping out of school due to other responsibilities such as caregiving.

Like financial difficulties, the struggle of balancing responsibilities can create chronic stress and self-medication through substances.

Lack Of Available Resources

While students are experiencing increased mental health struggles, college campuses are struggling to keep up with the need for support, according to the NEA.

Campus counseling centers often do not have enough staff members or resources to help students with their emotional difficulties.

Students of color are even less likely than their white peers to receive mental health care on campus, possibly due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of college counselors are white.

Because of these limited resources, campus wellness centers usually prioritize students with chronic conditions over students who are experiencing the early stages of mental illness.

While many students remain on waitlists, conditions such as substance abuse can worsen significantly before these students finally receive on-campus care.

Availability Of Substances

Exposure to substances increases a person’s likelihood to use those substances, and college campuses often present easier access to drugs and alcohol.

Some students may be exposed to certain drugs for the first time while in college, and they may try highly addictive substances as a result.

This includes opioid prescription drugs and the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

Physical Vs. Psychological Addiction

When a college student, or anybody else, develops an addiction, that addiction will have both physical and psychological elements.

Both aspects of addiction must be addressed in substance abuse care.

Physical Addiction

Physical changes occur when the body gets used to a substance and begins to expect it. The person’s body will make adjustments to compensate for the drugs or alcohol.

For example, some students may misuse stimulants to keep up with assignments. Stimulants boost dopamine, a brain chemical that increases focus and wakefulness.

However, when a person consistently misuses stimulants, the brain will make itself less sensitive to this substance over time by removing some of its dopamine receptors.

As a result, the person will need higher doses of the stimulant to achieve the same effect.

Furthermore, because the brain is now less sensitive to dopamine, normal amounts of dopamine will not provide adequate focus and energy.

Therefore, when someone with a stimulant dependency stops using stimulants, they may feel sluggish, unmotivated, and irritable.

They may continue using stimulants, even if they would like to quit, to avoid these symptoms.

Psychological Addiction

Psychological addiction is the emotional aspect of drug dependence.

People who experience psychological addiction feel a strong need to use substances, even when drug use causes harmful consequences.

The emotional and mental attachment to drugs can contribute to depression, anxiety, and a range of other behavioral health symptoms.

Long-Term Health Effects Of Substance Use Disorders

People with SUDs often experience long-term health effects as a result of prolonged drug use.

Many of these effects depend on the type and method of substance use.

For instance, somebody who smokes a substance may experience tooth decay and lung damage, while somebody who consumes pills may experience gastrointestinal issues.

Some common long-term effects of drug use include:

  • nervous system damage
  • infections such as HIV
  • heart problems
  • internal organ damage
  • stroke
  • cancer
  • mental health disorders
  • brain damage

Substance abuse treatment can reduce the risk of experiencing these issues, and it can stop some of these conditions from worsening.

How Do I Know If I Have A Substance Use Issue?

Many college students wonder if their substance use, or if a friend’s substance use, has turned into an addiction.

Here you’ll find some clues that can help you discover whether you or your friend should seek treatment.

The Difference Between Drinking Socially And Alcohol Misuse

Social drinking is very common among college students, and alcohol is often found at parties.

Although no form of substance use, including alcohol use, is 100% safe, people who don’t experience substance abuse can set personal boundaries for social drinking.

However, a person who attends a lot of parties may struggle to determine if their drinking has become a problem.

If you’re not sure if you have an alcohol use disorder, look for common signs of alcohol addiction.

Some signs of alcohol abuse among college students include:

  • drinking to alleviate social anxiety
  • inability to have fun or relax without alcohol
  • drinking during the day
  • inability to limit the amount of drinks consumed
  • loss of focus on daily responsibilities
  • using alcohol to deal with academic stress
  • declining mental health
  • difficulty with self-care tasks such as hygiene
  • feeling as if alcohol is a need rather than a desire
  • less socializing than usual at clubs or parties
  • experiencing physical symptoms when not drinking (alcohol withdrawal)
  • loss of interest in extracurricular activities and hobbies

Signs Of Substance Abuse

If you are concerned about substance abuse, either in yourself or a friend, you can look for physical and behavioral signs.

Some common signs of substance abuse among college students include:

  • secrecy and paranoia
  • mood changes
  • confusion
  • sudden money problems
  • risk-taking behaviors
  • wearing long sleeves even in warm weather
  • skipping classes, extracurricular activities, and social events
  • dropping grades and falling behind on assignments
  • academic probation
  • abruptly changing friend groups
  • slurred or unusually fast speech
  • changes in sleep patterns
  • physical changes such as dilated pupils
  • unkempt appearance

Symptoms Of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse impacts both physical and mental health. Some of these symptoms may be difficult to spot in another person, while others become increasingly obvious over time.

These symptoms in yourself or a friend can indicate an SUD:

  • increased physical tolerance for substances
  • fatigue
  • restlessness
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • injuries and accidents
  • racing heart
  • paranoia
  • difficulty thinking and focusing
  • memory problems
  • appetite changes and malnourishment
  • emotional disregulation
  • digestive issues
  • diminished immune system

Some people who misuse drugs may also experience psychosis, which is a rare but very serious condition that describes a break from reality.

In a state of psychosis, a person may experience hallucinations, delusions, incoherence, and agitation.

How To Talk To A Friend Showing Signs Of Addiction

If a friend is showing signs of addiction, you may not be sure how to talk to them. It is normal to have questions and feel apprehensive about broaching the topic.

However, your willingness to speak to them about their substance use may help them feel less alone, and they might be convinced to seek support.

Addressing a possible addiction requires empathy and tact, but don’t let the fear of saying the “wrong” thing prevent you from speaking up.

Here you’ll find guidelines for talking to a friend about an SUD.

Choose The Right Time

The best time to talk about an SUD is when you and your friend are both fairly calm.

Choose a time when you have few distractions and have time to talk without feeling rushed.

Avoid bringing up the topic when your friend is under the influence or when you and your friend are having an argument.

If you try to start the conversation during a heated moment, your friend is more likely to become defensive and less likely to hear what you have to say.

Express Concern

Often, people with SUDs avoid speaking about their substance use because they feel judged. These feelings often cause defensiveness rather than open-minded listening.

When you bring up your friend’s substance use, express concern and do your best to communicate that you care about them. Avoid using accusatory language.

If your friend feels cared for rather than judged, they may be more willing to listen and seek medical advice and care.

Use Stigma-Reducing Language

Substance abuse is a difficult topic, and SUDs are still heavily stigmatized. Stigmatizing language contributes to judgment, so try to use stigma-reducing language instead.

Remember that addiction is an illness, not a choice, and center your conversation around your friend’s health and safety.

Use person-first language such as “friend with an addiction” rather than words such as “addict” or “alcoholic” that reduce a person’s identity to an illness.

Stay Calm

Even if you use all of the guidelines above, you should be prepared for your friend to react negatively.

Not only is addiction an emotional topic, but some drugs cause aggressive and paranoid behaviors.

Don’t blame yourself if this happens, but do try to remain calm, patient, and understanding.

If you are worried for your own safety, remove yourself from the situation, but avoid yelling and placing blame. Confrontational behavior will only cause more opposition from your friend.

Connecting To Help For An SUD

If you or a friend are dealing with addiction, resources are available to help.

Here you’ll find options for college students experiencing SUDs, as well as resources for friends who want to help.

Resources For College Students Experiencing Addiction

These resources include tools for finding substance abuse care, as well as tools that students can use throughout their recovery.

On-Campus Options For Substance Abuse Treatment

  • AcademicLiveCare — This program provides telemedicine for college students. Many colleges and universities offer AcademicLiveCare at no cost.
  • Collegiate Recovery Program Directory — The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) provides a directory of colleges that offer on-campus addiction support.

Apps For Addiction Prevention And Recovery

  • Sober Grid — This app includes peer support, daily mental health quests, and inspiration for people in recovery. Sober Grid often partners with campus leaders.
  • I Am Sober — This app, which has many free features, allows people to track their recovery and access community support.
  • Quitzilla — Quitzilla tracks days of abstinence from substance use and harmful habits. It also provides multiple types of motivation, such as showing how much money a person has saved throughout their sobriety.

Addiction Education And Recovery Websites

  • Campus Drug Prevention — This website from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) provides substance use information for college students, leaders, parents, and practitioners.
  • Recovery Is Possible — This webpage from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers information for people dealing with opioid use disorder.
  • Addiction Education Society — The AES is a nonprofit organization that provides addiction education resources.
  • Addiction Education — The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) provides several resources for people who want to learn about addiction.
  • Young Adults: It’s Okay To Ask For Help — This page is from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and provides resources for seeking mental health support.

Accessing Free And Low-Cost Substance Abuse Care

  • Alcoholics Anonymous — AA is a network of support groups that uses a 12-step approach.
  • SMART Recovery — This addiction peer support program is a non-spiritual, evidence-based alternative to 12-step programs.
  • Search For Treatment — SAMHSA’s website provides a search tool for people looking for substance abuse care and other mental health services. You can narrow your search to include nonprofit programs, state-funded programs, and other options that may offer free or low-cost care.
  • NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Locator — The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides a search tool for people looking for alcohol addiction treatment.

Coping With Stress In College

Resources For Friends Who Want To Help

Here you’ll find resources and support for people who want to help a friend with an SUD.

Drug And Alcohol Intervention Support

Addiction Stigma Reduction

Support For Loved Ones Of People With SUDs

  • Al-Anon — Al-Anon is a network of support groups for the loved ones of people with alcohol use disorder.
  • Nar-Anon — This organization provides support for people with a loved one experiencing an SUD.
  • SMART Recovery Family And Friends — SMART Recovery provides resources, including meetings, for friends and family members of people experiencing addiction.
This page does not provide medical advice. See more

Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.

These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

  • Was this Helpful?
  • YesNo