When students go off to college, the party scene is practically inescapable. For many people, this is a great time to meet new people, cultivate friendships, and have fun after stressful classes.
And while parties can be a positive source of social fulfillment for students, the pressure to drink and use drugs is constantly present in many of these environments.
Substance use doesn’t only live at parties: casual hangouts, Adderall-fueled cram sessions, and battles with mental health can all be reasons for students to use drugs or alcohol.
If you want to avoid using substances, are trying to overcome an addiction, or are just looking for ways to have fun while sober, find help with the tips and resources discussed below.
Be Aware Of Drug And Alcohol Use
If you want to avoid using drugs or drinking alcohol in college, you need to be prepared for what to expect.
If this is not your first year at school, you’re probably at least partially aware of substance use on your campus. And if this is your first year, it’s best to take a moment to be prepared.
According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 43% of college students use illicit drugs.
Research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) published in 2021 revealed the following:
- Every year, 696,000 college students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
- 22,219 college students are hospitalized for an alcohol overdose annually.
- In 2019, 53% of full-time college students drank alcohol in the past month.
- Full-time college students usually drink more than others in their age group.
- 104,000 18-year-old college students had an alcohol use disorder in 2019, which increased to 231,000 by the age of 21.
These numbers aren’t intended to act as a fear-mongering technique, they’re meant to provide insight into the prevalence of substance use so college-age students can be prepared to face it.
Assuming that substances are a normal and good part of college, or the opposite, that substances won’t be an issue whatsoever, may set college students up for failure.
If you know what to expect and can prepare yourself for how you might respond, you’ll have a better chance of succeeding in sobriety.
Tips On How You Can Stay Sober In College
If you want to find a way to enjoy your college experience free from drugs or alcohol, there are plenty of ways to do so.
Below, we’ve gathered some of the best ways you can stay sober while going to school.
1. Know Your Limits
The first step to staying sober in college is to know your limits when it comes to drugs or alcohol.
If you think you can attend a social gathering where alcohol is present and not feel tempted to drink, you can do so as long as you feel like you still have control over your actions.
However, if you know this type of situation will only set you up for failure, opt for other socialization opportunities and avoid going to those places.
2. Understand Your Triggers
If you know your limits, you can also determine what your triggers are. A trigger is anything that can elicit a substance-using response.
For many college students, triggers might look like this:
- being isolated
- being overstimulated
- missing loved ones or feeling homesick
- issues with roommates
- stress from school, your major, extracurricular responsibilities, etc.
- struggles with mental health, such as feeling anxious
- witnessing drinking or drug use at tailgates and other gatherings
Determine what your triggers are, then take active steps to avoid those situations and come up with ways to handle yourself when and if a trigger arises.
For example, you can create a plan to go on a walk outside and get some fresh air when you feel a trigger of depression or missing loved ones.
3. Find Like-Minded Friends
It’s ok to have friends who like to drink or go to parties, but it’s also important to surround yourself with other people who share your common goal of staying sober.
Make friends with people who enjoy activities that are not centered on substances, and spend time with those people.
This will encourage you to continue finding healthy outlets for stress relief, entertainment, and socialization.
4. Fill Your Schedule
Often when a person feels alone or bored, substances can look like a good way to do something different or get out of a bout of depression.
You can avoid this feeling of boredom-induced substance use by filling your time with life-giving activities.
Get involved with clubs, intramural sports, study groups, and other things that interest you. Spend time with positive friends, go to office hours, and find ways to spend your time well.
5. Work On Your Mental Health
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that 7.7 million adults have co-occurring mental and substance use disorders.
For those who have issues with their mental health, their chances of abusing substances may increase.
Focus on practicing daily acts of self-care, going to therapy, and creating space for your mental health. When your mind is healthy, you have a better chance of succeeding in sobriety.
6. Create A Plan For Well-Rounded Health
Mental health often depends on our physical and emotional wellbeing. For that reason, you should find ways to engage your mind, body, and spirit daily.
Pursuing well-rounded health can help to address underlying issues that contribute to substance use and encourage a healthy lifestyle that doesn’t depend on drugs or alcohol.
Engaging your mind to pursue health might include:
- practicing mindfulness
- seeing a school counselor
- speaking affirmations over yourself
Engaging your body to pursue health might include:
- a healthy diet
- regular exercise (mild to moderate)
- breathing exercises
Engaging your spirit to pursue health might include:
- going to faith-based groups
Why Is Drug And Alcohol Use An Issue During College?
Because of the prevalence of drug and alcohol use in college, there are often multiple reasons substances can become an issue for some students.
When students step onto their campuses for the first time, they’re often thrown into an environment devoid of anyone they know or feel comfortable with.
On top of missing home and their friends and families, college students must quickly navigate unknown waters to find a social circle before loneliness and homesickness sets in.
Sorority and frat mixers, club parties, and dorm room hangouts often center on alcohol, and sometimes drugs, as a way to bring people together and have fun.
So even those who wouldn’t normally drink or try drugs will take the opportunity to do so to make friends and socialize with people.
According to SAMHSA research, many students might come to college with established drinking habits.
In 2019, 59% of 12th graders had already tried alcohol and 41% said they’ve been drunk at least once.
One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one in three high school students drank alcohol during the past 30 days, and one in six engaged in binge drinking.
For students who already have established habits with drugs and alcohol, the freedom that comes with college and the commonplace nature of substances feed into those habits.
Problems With Mental Health
It’s no secret that college can be a very vulnerable and emotional time for students, causing many to develop mild to severe issues with mental health.
A survey from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) in 2013 found that:
- 95% of college counseling center directors said the number of students with significant psychological problems was a growing concern.
- 70% of directors believe that the number of students with severe psychological problems increased in the past year.
- 21% of students had severe mental health concerns, and 40% had mild mental health concerns.
The survey also found that the most pressing issues are anxiety (41.6%), depression (36.4%), and relationship problems (35.8 %).
Issues such as this can be major factors in college students’ substance use habits, as substances are a way to get away from their problems and feel better.
Those with anxiety often take depressant drugs to suppress nervous thoughts and bodily responses, while those with depression might take uppers that hype them up.
Drug Use In College: Important Reminders
As you work on incorporating a few of the above strategies into your routine, there are a few important things to keep in mind.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Drugs And Alcohol
It can be alarming to read statistics and fear you’ll just be another number tomorrow. But it’s important to remember that you’re not a number, you’re a person.
The first step to embracing sobriety in college is to recognize that drug and alcohol use is a mainstay of many environments, and there’s no reason to live in fear.
If you use drugs, drink more than you intended to, or make friends with those who do these things, it’s never too late to implement better strategies for avoiding drugs and alcohol.
For those who have dealt with substance use before, relapse is a very normal part of recovery. Using drugs doesn’t mean your chances of recovering and staying sober are over.
Instead of fearing the moment you come in contact with substances, be prepared for it and remind yourself that it’s acceptable to fail and try again.
Treatment Is Possible
Substance abuse treatment is available for college students who need extra help getting over drug or alcohol use.
If you or someone you care about are worried that substance use has become unmanageable, reach out for help.
You can talk to a school counselor to get connected with resources or look outside your school for assistance.
Many college students might benefit from programs such as:
- behavioral therapy: There’s always a reason behind drug use. By going to therapy, you can work through the deeper issues that might be causing or contributing to addiction.
- outpatient treatment: This would allow you to keep going to school, getting daily or weekly counseling and addiction treatment in the mornings, afternoons, or evenings.
- inpatient treatment: If you need more structured help with 24-hour supervision, try going to an inpatient program for a few weeks.
- residential treatment: This is the most intensive option for students who need longer-term care for upwards of 30 days.
Resources For College Students Staying Sober
This list of helpful organizations and resources is for college students who want to stay sober during their time at school.
Podcasts you can listen to:
- College Student Drinking: What’s the Big Deal?, a Project of the RRForum
- The Dry Life: A Podcast for the Sober & Sober Curious: Toxic College Drinking Culture with Steph
- The Deep Dive With Dan & Chris: College Drinking Culture
- Up To Talk: Are you up to talk about college drinking culture?
- Resiliency in Running: Running from Binge Drinking in College
Organizations and resources to utilize:
- Campus Drug Prevention, How to Help a Friend: How you can be prepared to help a friend dealing with substance use.
- Mental Health America, Take a Mental Health Test: You can use this free screening tool to check in with yourself and your mental health.
- NIDA, Step by Step Guides to Finding Treatment for Drug Use Disorders: Find information on how to recognize substance abuse, treatment, support groups, and more.
- SAMHSA, Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator: Use this locator tool to find a mental health or substance use treatment provider in your area.
- Shatterproof: This organization works to end the stigma surrounding addiction and encourage addiction treatment.
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.
- American Psychological Association — College students’ mental health is a growing concern, survey finds
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Current and Binge Drinking Among High School Students — United States, 1991–2015
- National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics — Drug Use Among Youth: Facts & Statistics
- National Institute on Drug Abuse — Comorbidity: Substance Use and Other Mental Disorders
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — FACTS on College Student Drinking