The purpose of this guide is to help identify the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues for college students — and where and when to seek help. Left untreated, these issues can become debilitating and even life-threatening. If you feel that you may be experiencing these issues or find yourself concerned for a friend or peer, it is important to take action now.
And don’t forget: you’re not alone. Mental illness is very common among students today. According to mental health research conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
- One in four students have a diagnosable illness
- 40% do not seek help
- 80% feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities
- 50% have become so anxious that they struggled in school
While a variety of other mental health concerns are both topical and common among students today, this article limits itself to five prevalent issues: depression, anxiety, suicide, eating disorders, and addiction.
Our guide is not a substitute for treatment. Instead, it aims to help you find resources helpful for leading to a happier and healthier college career. If you think treatment may be necessary, contact a medical professional immediately.
Please note that in any situation, it may be difficult for you to approach a friend regarding these illnesses. After all, people often dislike being told that they’re sick, what they’re feeling, or what they should do. It’s wise to be supportive and patient, but applying too much pressure on a friend can make the situation worse.
If you believe that you’ve developed one of these mental health ailments, try to remember that your friends are looking out for your best interests. They want you to be well, and they are not attacking you. Talking about your problems with someone close to you may seem like a daunting task, but try to let them help you until you are ready to seek the professional help you need to get better.
Depression among college students comes in many forms and, in a survey conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors in 2013, 36.4% of college students reported they experienced some level of depression. According to the study, depression is the number one reason students drop out of school, and is a gateway issue that, if left untreated, could lead to other symptoms or even suicide. Depression is a common but serious illness that leaves you feeling despondent and helpless, completely detached from the world. It can interfere with your life, making important everyday tasks such as working, studying, sleeping, and eating difficult. Depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain likely caused by a combination of genetics, and biological, psychological, and environmental factors. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), depression is the most common mental disorder.
Symptoms for depression differ from person to person. Ultimately, depression is a result of a chemical imbalance in our brains. The way one person displays signs of depression is not necessarily the way symptoms emerge in others. Similarities do occur but how each person reacts and behaves is determined by how they handle change, where they are in their lives, and their susceptibility to depression. According to the APA, symptoms of depression include (but are not limited to):
- Physical Well-being Symptoms: Changes in sleep habits, whether sleeping more or — more frequently — difficulty sleeping. Appetite changes, including either a loss of appetite or overeating
- Emotional Symptoms: Sadness, feelings of being overwhelmed, feelings of hopelessness, and feelings of powerlessness
- Thinking Symptoms: Seeing a glass ‘half-empty,’ having trouble concentrating and paying attention, resulting in difficulty in reading and completing work tasks
Displaying some of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you are depressed. Life is complicated and we all face some of these issues from time to time. However, if you begin to experience these symptoms with some regularity — or several symptoms together — it’s wise to seek mental health, if only to be on the safe side.
Identifying these issues in others can be tricky, as students often downplay or simply never talk about something deeply bothering them, often due to insecurities, fear of standing out or embarrassment, and peers can easily misdiagnose one another, sometimes making matters worse.
Incoming college freshman are often told that college is the best four years of their lives. You have a new independence to do what you want (within, of course, legal bounds) and you are free to explore who you are and what interests you most. But with that freedom comes many new factors over which you may feel like you have little to no control, like making friends, getting along with roommates, or choosing classes for a specific semester.
The stresses of being away from home, managing coursework, and finding your path can lead to intense feelings of inadequacy. You may feel helpless, as if you are just going through the motions, especially when you realize you’re not having the fun everyone insisted you would. These feelings, left unchecked, can lead to depression. With that in mind, it is important to understand how to both recognize signs of depression and how to keep yourself healthy.
RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS
Recognizing signs of depression in yourself and others can be tricky. Everyone has off days, or times when they become overwhelmed with life, but most people bounce back in short order. Those days when you or your friends feel down or less excited about getting out of bed should not be cause for alarm. However, when days become weeks and simply getting out of bed becomes a struggle, this is cause for concern.
What Should You Do If You Start To Notice Signs of Depression in Your Friend?
If you begin to notice signs and symptoms of depression in a friend, there are several steps you can take to get them help. Here are some signs of depression to look for:
- They are not enjoying activities they once loved
- They no longer attend classes or social outings
- They are experiencing extreme anger or sadness over a relationship in their life
- They react negatively or with apathy to most things
- They often talk about death or suicide
Witnessing this can be bewildering and you won’t have all the answers. But what you can do is be a good listener when someone attempts to discuss their issues. Offering words of encouragement shows your friend you are a source of support rather than one of criticism or judgment. Avoid telling your friends to “cheer up” or “snap out of it.” Many who are depressed are aware of their condition, and telling them to get over it, even with good intentions, is not helpful. They often don’t have control over how they feel during their downward turns.
It is important to seek help from professionals for any level of depression, so if you feel your friend is at risk, gently encourage them to seek help and offer to accompany them, be it to a student health center or a doctor’s appointment. Remember, however, that while talking through their issues with you may be helpful, it is not a substitute for treatment, and that depression can worsen or lead to a number of other mental illnesses if left untreated.
How Do You Know if You’re Depressed?
It’s important to understand your own susceptibility to depression. Knowing how you handle stress, feelings of isolation, homesickness, and heartbreak may help you realize when you’re becoming depressed. But for many who are already depressed, it’s difficult to look inward. Depression can be a cycle of dark thoughts and feelings of worthlessness. Soul-searching and self-awareness may not always be possible when you’re depressed, but it is important that you try.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Have you experienced extreme sadness or hopelessness?
- Does your family have a history of depression?
- Have you turned to heavy drinking or drug use to relieve feelings of hopelessness?
- Have you experienced invasive thoughts of death or suicide?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, consider contacting your primary healthcare provider or your student health center for a mental health assessment. Even if you don’t think it’s necessary quite yet, it’s good to know who to call. If you feel comfortable speaking with a friend or relative about your concerns, have someone help you research treatment options and accompany you to your healthcare provider.
For non-campus options, support groups can also make a big difference. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) hosts a handy geographical locator for DBSA support groups all over the United States. Similarly, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America also offers a set of useful support tools.
Those who suffer from depression often feel as if they are alone and have no one to turn to. But it’s important to understand that isn’t the case — people care and they want to help. People suffering from depression also have resources at their disposal that they may not know about. For example, the following organizations are dedicated to providing resources for those living with depression:
This organization is dedicated to promoting the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, and related disorders. Its site offers insight into understanding depressive mental illnesses, provides links for those seeking help and identifies mobile apps designed to help people living with depressive illnesses.
A division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIMH works to transform public and scientific understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and a cure. NIMH offers a wealth of information on pinpointing signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, resources for seeking help and opportunities to participate in clinical trials to further research.
This online resource for college students seeking mental health wellness provides a wealth of information, such as tips on how best to help friends in crisis and ideas for developing better wellness habits.
The ACHA promotes healthy campus communities and works to serve as a principal leadership organization for advancing the health of college students. The organization makes available many resources on its site, including help lines, brochures on different types of depression, and external links.
The Jed Foundation’s produces and hosts a number of online resources designed to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college students. For example, the organization’s
This initiative aims to help identify warning signs through social media and its Half of Us campaign promotes mental health awareness nationally via on-air or live events, and connects students with health care providers.
Low levels of stress and anxiety are a part of most people’s lives. In turn, experiencing these feelings does not necessarily mean that you have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders occur when anxiety interferes with your daily life, halting your ability to function, and causing an immense amount of stress and fear. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. today. According to the organization’s report, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults over the age of 18, yet only one-third seek and receive treatment. The ADAA says that nearly 75% of those affected by an anxiety disorder will experience their first episode before the age of 22. Anxiety disorder types can include (but are not limited to):
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Constant, severe anxiety that interferes with day-to-day activities.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Unreasonable thoughts, fears and obsessions that lead to repetitive behaviors or compulsions.
- Panic Disorder
Characterized by frequent sudden attacks of terror, panic, and constant fearfulness.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
A condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.
- Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
A disorder in which everyday interactions cause irrational anxiety, fear, self-consciousness and embarrassment.
Symptoms of anxiety disorders may sometimes be mistaken for everyday stress or simply written off as someone worrying too much. Depending on how your body responds to the increased levels of certain chemicals, panic attacks may be mistaken as a physical ailment, such as a heart attack or a tension headache. Symptoms manifest differently in each person, so what is true for you won’t necessarily be true for a friend. Common symptoms for anxiety disorders may include:
- Feelings of stress and apprehension
- Trouble concentrating
- Sweating and dizziness
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- Muscle pain and tension
- Frequent upset stomach or diarrhea
The exact causes of anxiety disorders aren’t fully understood, but they may include a combination of genetics, naturally occurring brain chemicals, life experiences, or stress. If you experience extreme anxiety about exams, it may simply be common test anxiety. Comparatively affordable treatment options are available to students on campus, and the ADAA hosts a list of low cost treatment plans and resources available to you.
RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS
One of the most important things to remember about anxiety disorders is that brief and occasional flashes of anxious feelings or behavior do not automatically indicate a mental illness. But if the anxious feelings persist, or if they begin to manifest in obsessive behavior or an overwhelming sense of fear, then it’s time to seek help for yourself or your friend.
What Should You Do if You Start to Notice Signs of an Anxiety Disorder in a Friend?
College is a stressful time and students can expect to deal with a variety of expected and unexpected stressors through their college careers. While stress sources don’t necessarily cause anxiety disorders, they can worsen symptoms. And while, as mentioned above, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses affecting adults and children in the U.S. today, identifying anxiety disorder signs in others can be difficult. This is in part because symptoms can seem like normal stress or anxiety, and people experience stress differently. For example, your friend may be suffering from an anxiety disorder if they:
- Have experienced a tragic event and do not develop healthy coping habits
- Appear to live in constant fear of failure, academically or socially
- Are uncomfortable and extremely anxious in social atmospheres
- Have trouble concentrating or seem to have a blank mind
- Seem plagued with guilt or stress
- Have visible panic attacks
If you believe someone you know may have an anxiety disorder, be an active listener when they are feeling stressed or anxious, and help them research the next steps they should take. Avoid criticizing or belittling the severity of their symptoms and encourage your friend to try coping strategies that avoid the issues or cause further anxiety (such as those recommended by the AADA). Encourage your friend to visit a campus health care center and discuss their troubles with a professional. If your friend is reluctant to seek treatment, consider consulting a mental health care provider for suggestions for moving forward.
How Do You Know if You Have an Anxiety Disorder?
Sooner or later just about every college student experiences stress and anxiety over the course of life on campus (such as exams). But if you begin feeling riddled with guilt or experience frequent anxiety or panic attacks, this could be cause for concern. Distinguishing the difference between regular stress and a disorder can be difficult, so it’s smart to consult your healthcare provider if you feel you might be developing an anxiety disorder. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Are you experiencing anxious or worrisome thoughts on a daily basis?
- Are you plagued by fears others perceive as unfounded or irrational?
- Do you avoid everyday social activities because they cause you anxiety?
- Do you experience sudden heart-pounding panic attacks?
- Is your anxiety interfering with your school work, social life and family?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, consider consulting your primary healthcare provider (or your student health center) for a mental health assessment. An assessment can help determine if you are experiencing an anxiety disorder. Additionally, as mentioned above, ADAA has put together a list of coping techniques to help students living with anxiety that you may also want to consider.
Remember: anxiety disorders are treatable, and if you feel you are suffering, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by taking your mental health seriously and contacting a professional today.
The following organizations are examples of excellent resources for students suffering from anxiety disorders. Each organization provides information on the different forms of anxiety and useful resources that explore approaches to coping.
The ADAA is dedicated to promoting the prevention, treatment and cure of anxiety and depression, and related disorders. The organization’s site offers insight into how we might better understand depressive mental illnesses. Additionally, it suggests several innovative mobile apps that cater to users with depressive illnesses.
The APA is dedicated to advancing the creation, communication, and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society. Its site offers a great deal of insight into the differences between anxiety disorders and depression, and has tools to help you locate a psychologist who specializes in an anxiety disorder treatment near you.
The Anxiety Resource Center is a nonprofit dedicated to offering assistance to those suffering from anxiety disorders. Its website features a lengthy list of education materials, a newsletter, and a blog to help you stay updated on breakthroughs in research and trends.
Promoting the understanding and treatment of social anxiety disorder, this nonprofit maintains a large body of resources for people suffering from social anxiety. The site provides links to support groups, information on how to find health professionals, news and updates on the disorder, and extensive information on treatment options.
Beyond OCD’s site features suggestions and resources intended to help sufferers cope with and conquer OCDs in college. The organization also offers tools for visitors to find support groups in their area.
SuicideSuicide is the act of deliberately taking one’s own life. Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and despair can build when students don’t take steps to cope with stressors. Suicide affects everyone, including a victim’s friends and family.
In a 2011 report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 39,518 suicides were reported in the U.S., making it the 10th leading cause of death that year. In 2013, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the ADAA. It is now the second leading cause of death in college students in the United States, based on an American College Health Association report.
RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS
Many students experience frustration and doubt, but sometimes those thoughts gain an intense momentum, bringing students to a place where they seriously consider ending their lives. Signs of a suicidal ideation differ from person to person. According to the AADA, common warning signs can appear in a person’s speech, mood, and behavior. Consider these examples:
Suicidal people may talk about feeling trapped, feeling as if they are a burden to others, that they have no reason to go on, and may discuss suicide.
Individuals suffering from suicidal ideation may display a variety of moods, including anxiety, irritability, loss of interest in things activities and objects they enjoyed before, humiliation, rage, and depression.
People considering suicide may exhibit specific behaviors including giving away possessions they once prized, withdrawing from friends and family, inexplicably visiting people to tell them goodbye, searching online for means of committing suicide, sleeping poorly or too often, behaving recklessly, displaying aggression, and increasing their use of drugs and alcohol.
If any of the behaviors listed above are present in your friend, it’s important you talk to them about your concerns as soon as possible. They could be in a fragile state, so approach them with patience and help them seek out a mental health professional. If you’re unsure how to approach your friend, you can consult online suicide prevention programs for specific advice, such as Crisis Clinic.
Remember: If you feel that someone’s life is in danger, immediately call 911. It’s important that anyone who may be suicidal receives the help they need as soon as possible. A majority of college students who take their lives have a diagnosable and treatable mental illness.
What Should You Do if You Start to Notice Suicidal Behavior in Your Friend?
If you are concerned that a roommate, friend or peer is suicidal, contact your campus counseling center immediately. Students who are suicidal often communicate their intent to those around them, so be aware of signs of depression and do not take their actions lightly — you could save a life.
The AADA recommends five steps to take if you suspect someone you know is suicidal:
- Ask them directly: “Are you considering killing yourself?” This may seem blunt. However, according to the AADA, studies show that this question does not increase the likelihood of suicidal thoughts, and it’s an important foundation for the next steps.
- Make safety a priority: If they answer positively to step one, ask them if they have a plan. While it may not be easy, removing lethal objects and items in the dorm or home, such as guns, can also make a big difference.
- Be there for them: Sometimes the most you can do for someone is simply to be there for them when they need you. Be there for them and listen to what they have to say. Acknowledge and talk to them about the realities of suicide. According to the AADA, this can reduce suicidal thoughts.
- Give them the tools to help themselves: Save the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s number (1-800-273-8255) in your phone and, if possible, their own.
- Remain in contact: When and if a crisis occurs or after a suicidal individual is discharged, staying in contact makes a big difference and can potentially save the life of an at-risk person.
How Do You Know if You Are Suicidal?
Suicidal thoughts often stem from a preexisting mental condition. Depression, which causes distorted thinking, can sometimes lead to suicidal thoughts. Feeling completely overwhelmed and helpless from anxiety may also lead you down this path. Mental illnesses left untreated can have dire conclusions.
If you are thinking about killing yourself, tell a friend or call your mental health center as soon as possible. Suicide is a preventable tragedy, and if you’re feeling alone or hopeless, it’s crucial that you understand that there are people out there who care. They can help you get past this bump in the road.
SUICIDE PREVENTION RESOURCES
There are many resources available to you through your on campus student health center or through the following organizations dedicated to preventing suicide:
Active Minds is an organization dedicated to educating and changing the conversation about mental health on college campuses. The organization administers over 400 chapters on campuses across the U.S. that teach prevention techniques for students and faculty. The Active Minds website offers a list of resources for students in a crisis, and features a therapist/counseling search tool for locating professionals in your area.
Dedicated to improving the lives of Americans affected by mental illness, NAMI provides information on suicide prevention, a link to a 24 hour suicide lifeline crisis chat, a text support line, and social network groups to allow victims to join the conversation.
The AFSP works to end and “prevent suicide through research, education, and advocacy.” The organization’s website provides a wealth of information on suicide statistics in America and prevention techniques, along with a lengthy list of available resources. The foundation hosts Out of the Darkness walks on campuses across America to raise funds for youth suicide prevention, to reach out to students, and to help create a safe environment.
Calling the toll-free number (1-800-273-8255), connects those in need to compassionate people who are there to provide the emotional support some can’t find anywhere else. They will help family and friends of those at risk find ways to help their loved ones. All calls are confidential.
A project began to provide LGBTQ individuals of any age a safe space to talk and find support, the Trevor Project provides several outlets for communication and help. The Trevor Lifeline (1-866-488-7386) is a toll-free, 24/7 intervention and suicide prevention service.
Millions of college students — both women and men alike — develop eating disorders during their college years. The vast majority don’t seek help or don’t realize the extent of their problem.
Eating disorders are extreme behaviors, emotions, and attitudes that revolve around food and weight perceptions. These disorders cause serious mental and physical problems that can result in life-threatening issues when left untreated. According to statistics provided by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD):
- Eating disorders are extremely common among all ages and genders — at least 30,000,000 people in the United States suffer from some type of eating disorder
- Of all mental disorders, individuals suffering from eating disorders have the highest mortality rate
- One person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder every 62 minutes
Males are nearly as likely to develop a disorder as women. Due to cultural views of eating disorders, however, they don’t often seek treatment — bulimia and anorexia are seen as women’s issues.
As defined by the ANAD, examples of common eating disorders include:
- Anorexia Nervosa
Characterized by an unhealthy fixation on thinness, a distorted body image, and fears of gaining weight, this disorder commonly results in emaciation.
- Bulimia Nervosa
Bulimia nervosa is a binge eating disorder, involving recurrent and frequent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food, followed by behavior that compensates for binging, like purging, fasting, or over-exercising.
- Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder is characterized by constant cravings that occur any time of day and result in binge eating. This disorder is often associated with poor body image and low self-esteem.
The signs and symptoms of eating disorders vary by person and condition and many depend on the mental state of the individual suffering from the disorder. However, there are several red flags that are common factors for anorexia, bulimia, and binging. These include:
- Distorted or poor body image
- Excessive exercise
- Irregular heartbeats
- Feeling like eating is out of control
- Fear of eating in public
- Constantly making excuses for eating habits
Many college students do not seek treatment for their eating disorder, nor do they believe they’ve developed a problem. Eating disorders are potentially life threatening and can contribute to serious health issues if not treated properly, including:
- Kidney failure
- Stunted growth
- Loss of menstruation
- Failure in the reproductive system
- Heart problems
RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS
We all have days where our self-image isn’t the best. We look in the mirror and sigh because all we see are our flaws. We sometimes don’t eat, forget to eat, or eat junk when we’re stressed or have an over-full schedule. Remember that a few occurrences of each does not mean someone is at risk.
When the random complaints about weight become all a friend can focus on, or when you notice you’ve started skipping meals and binging on junk food and then feeling guilty afterwards, you may want to approach this topic. If you’re worried the behavior in a friend may have been going on long before you noticed, ask them gently about their eating habits. If you fear your friend won’t respond well to your concern, or you’re worried they will react poorly, you can contact a professional who will walk you through how to broach the subject. It may not be easy for you to get your friend to talk about their problems because no one likes to be told they’re sick.
What Should You Do if You Think Your Friend is Developing an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders aren’t just about eating and weight; they come with underlying stress management and self-esteem issues. Many college students with eating disorders don’t seek treatment because they are unaware of the severity of their disorder, or they may avoid treatment by refusing to acknowledge that they have a problem. When caught at an early stage, eating disorders are highly treatable, so it’s important to let your friend know your concerns shortly after you notice signs of a disorder.
Here are some signs to look for that could indicate an eating disorder:
- Is your friend skipping meals or only eating small portions?
- Is your friend suddenly uninterested in foods they once loved?
- Is your friend limiting their meals to foods very low in calories?
- Is your friend taking diet pills excessively or medication that suppresses hunger, such as Adderall or Ritalin?
- Does your friend disappear suddenly to the restroom after meals?
- Are your friend’s teeth noticeably stained?
- Are they using mints after trips to the bathroom or perfume to mask the smell of vomit?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, your friend could be developing an eating disorder. Many college students and young adults a negative body image during their college years. While this is certainly a sensitive time, don’t let worries underscore the importance of valid concerns. If you need help approaching your friend, consult the National Eating Disorder Association, and get matched with someone trained to assist friends and family address eating disorders with their loved ones.
How Do You Know if You Have an Eating Disorder?
Recognizing that you have an eating disorder is often the first step to recovery. Many who develop a disorder feel a pressure to be thin or a certain weight, have a distorted or very poor body image, or the stress in their lives makes them feel out of control. In order for you to see these things in yourself, you must be willing to take a long, hard look at your behavior, moods and health. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you refuse to eat food or skip meals?
- Do you fear eating in public with others?
- Do you count calories out of a need for control?
- Do you have strict eating habits that you feel guilty and ashamed for breaking?
- Do you have a history of perfectionism?
- Are you obsessed or dissatisfied with your weight or body shape?
- Do you find yourself eating large amounts of food and then purging or making yourself vomit?
- Have you avoided eating for a day then overate when you became too hungry?
- Have you noticed excessive hair growth on your arms and face or loss of your menstrual cycle?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, or believe you have an eating disorder, do not delay seeking treatment. Eating disorders can become life-threatening, and it’s important to receive treatment as soon as possible.
EATING DISORDER RESOURCES
If you need assistance helping a friend through an eating disorder, or if you need to understand more about them before you come to terms with the fact that you may have one, the following list of resources are a good place to start. Each organization provides information on getting help for yourself and a loved one.
NEDA is dedicated to improving the understanding of eating disorders in America. Its site has a list of links and tools to seek help and a wealth of information regarding support groups, treatment referrals and research studies.
ANAD is dedicated to the prevention and alleviation of eating disorders. The organization has a helpline and email to provide information and answer questions for sufferers. ANAD also hosts an annual conference for news and updates on the disorders and to connect patients with healthcare providers and support.
This global network is dedicated to the research, education, prevention and treatment of eating disorders. AED is a great resource for learning about the differences between eating disorders, identifying signs and symptoms, and finding information for professionals in your area, as well as news on treatment options and developments in research.
Eating Disorder Hope provides information on education and awareness, recovery tools, and access to treatment and support. The organization also has a blog with specific news and information for college students suffering from eating disorders.
The ACHA promotes healthy campus communities and works to serve as the principal leadership organization for advancing the health of college students. Many resources are made available on the site: helplines, brochures on different types of depression, and external links to seek help.
Alcohol and drug use has become commonplace on many college campuses throughout the U.S. For some students, what starts as a social tradition can become a full-fledged addiction. An addiction is defined as a dependency and repeated abuse of a substance such as drugs or alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that:
- About 25% of students who regularly drink report academic problems tied to their drinking habits
- Nearly 60% of college students have consumed alcohol in the past month, and nearly two out of three of those students engaged in binge drinking during the same period
- Almost 20% of college students meet Alcohol Use Disorder criteria
The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that 21.3% of young adults between 18 and 25 used illicit drugs. Of that same age group, 3.8% admitted to using psychotherapeutic drugs for non-medical purposes.
Many students who participate in alcohol and drug use in college do not develop an addiction, but they will feel the side effects of withdrawal or prolonged use of the substances. Those who do become dependent on alcohol or drugs could show signs such as the following:
- Slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, or impaired coordination
- Fear, anxiety, or paranoia for no apparent reason
- Prone to suspicious behaviors, frequently get into fights or trouble with the law
- A sudden need for money or financial crisis
- Built tolerance for alcohol and drug use; user needs to use more of the substance to obtain the same effects
- Deterioration of physical appearance, such as weight loss or gain, and change in personal grooming habits
- A sudden change in friends, activities, or hobbies
If you experience one or several of the symptoms above, you may be at risk. Genetics contribute to your likelihood of developing an addiction, especially if there is a history of alcohol or drug abuse in your family. If you find yourself turning to drugs or alcohol more frequently to absolve feelings of stress or sadness, contact your student health center to learn more about addiction and the next steps available to you on campus. It is important to know and understand that addictions need to be taken seriously and treated effectively with the assistance of a professional healthcare provider.
RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS
Recognizing the signs of addiction can be difficult, especially if you’ve never witnessed or experienced them first-hand. It’s not always clear when alcohol or drug use has turned from recreational to habitual, and those who don’t want to admit they have a problem will use tactics that evade and undermine your concerns.
What Should You Do If You Believe Your Friend Has An Addiction?
Alcohol consumption and drug use are common in college environments. This fact can make it more difficult to identify signs of an addiction from the outside. In part due to the pervasive drug and alcohol use and abuse on college campuses, many students don’t believe — or refuse to admit — they’ve become addicted to a substance. However, if you are concerned, there are ways to determine if your friend has developed an issue.
Ask yourself the following:
- Does your friend drink to relieve stress or suppress issues?
- Has their drinking or drug use interfered with their relationships with others?
- Have they withdrawn from activities or school work?
- Does your friend’s life revolve around drug or alcohol use?
- Have they developed a change in personality?
- Have you noticed an unusual smell on their breath, body or clothing?
Drug and alcohol addicts often conceal their symptoms or downplay their addiction, so it’s important that you express your concerns when you notice warning signs. The earlier an addict seeks and receives help, the greater chance they have at a successful return to sobriety. When they are sober, tell your friend you’ve noticed their excessive drug or alcohol use. Emphasize the positive sober behavior you admire and the destructive drunk or high behaviors you’re concerned about.
Don’t be accusatory or judgmental, as this might cause your friend to withdraw and further ignore their issues. Offer to go with them to seek treatment at your student health center, and consult resources online.
How Do You Know if You’ve Developed a Drug or Alcohol Addiction?
College is a great time to meet new friends and engage in social activities, but if your drug or alcohol use is negatively affecting your everyday life, you may be at risk for developing an addiction.
If you’re concerned, contact your mental health care provider to take an assessment, and ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you feel uncomfortable when drugs or alcohol are not available?
- Do you drink heavily when you are disappointed, distressed or get in a fight?
- Have you ever been unable to remember part of the previous evening, even though your friends say you did not pass out?
- Has a friend or family member expressed concern about your alcohol or drug use?
- Have any of your blood relatives had an addiction to drugs or alcohol?
- Do you sometimes want to continue your drug and alcohol use when you’re by yourself?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, or believe you have an addiction, consult your healthcare provider today and find out what your options are for treatment. Addiction is a serious growing crisis for college students today but it can also be effectively treated with the help of a trained healthcare professional.
Consult these resources available to you to find out more about curbing your addiction today:
This database provides reports on recent research and prevention programs for alcohol and drug addiction. NIDA offers findings on the latest research projects, clinical trial offers, and guidance for those seeking treatment.
SAMHSA is an agency within the Department of Health that works towards advancing behavioral health in the United States. This site hosts extensive information on substance abuse and a treatment locator by ZIP code. SAMHSA’s national hotline (1-800-662-4357) is available 24/7, 365 days a year for individuals suffering from substance abuse.
NCADD is an organization that provides support for people suffering from substance abuse. The organization’s site hosts information for every stage of addiction, from admitting your issues to recovery. It also hosts a directory of programs and services offered in your area.
This famous 12-step program is designed to give alcoholics the opportunity to rebuild their lives and learn to live without alcohol. AA provides members with a support group and sponsor to help through the rough patches. You can find a location for a meeting near your ZIP code by way of AA’s site.
Much like AA, NA administers a 12-step program designed to help those who have developed a dependency on drugs. You can find meetings near you, publications, news, and the support you need to break your habit and work through addiction.
Know Your Rights as a Student
University responses to the growing mental health crisis on campus have been controversial. Commentators often deem university responses to mental health crises as inadequate or are even counterproductive. Students are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that more and more of their peers have been reprimanded for reporting their crises to campus healthcare center professionals. Students are sometimes kicked off campus and forced into hospitalization, even though their crisis didn’t necessarily require them to do so. For example, a recent (2014) Newsweek exposé relates the story of a Princeton student whose decision to overdose, a clear sign of mental distress, was met by the university’s decision to force the student to withdrawal, sticking his family and himself with hefty bills for the few weeks he attended the school.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal disability laws prohibits discrimination against students whose psychiatric disabilities “substantially limit a major life activity.” It also mandates that colleges and universities provide students with “reasonable accommodations,” such as less school work and extended deadlines, provided they can meet nondiscriminatory academic and behavior standards. The ADA also stipulates that the student’s disability must not pose a significant risk of harm that cannot be mitigated by reasonable accommodations.
While colleges must abide by certain rules and regulations to keep students living on campus safe from harm, this does not give them the right to discriminate against mental illness, so take a moment to better understand your rights as a student via the following governmental resources: