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Should Parents Just Say No When It Comes to Drugs & College?

4 steps parents can take to keep their college students in a drug free zone

When I sit in my office at a college counseling center, I sometimes think, if these walls could talk, if parents could see what I see, they might take a harder line when it comes to their children, drug use, and binge drinking.

At least one time per semester I will see a student walk into my office who has psychosis related to drug use.

The student might be hearing voices telling her the government is spying on her. She is afraid to leave her room or eat campus food.    

Her boyfriend brings her in because he is scared and concerned. They have been smoking marijuana daily for a year. He is feeling fine, so why is she having this response?

I would tell them that some adolescents experiment with drugs without a problem, while others will have a negative reaction, particularly to marijuana. Marijuana has 3 times the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) as it did in the 80’s, leading to an increased risk of psychosis.

For some people, stopping marijuana can lead to a reduction in psychotic symptoms, but in others, even after ending drug use, the psychosis may lead to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Marijuana can accelerate the illness process in individuals genetically predisposed to these disorders.

Although most marijuana users will not develop psychosis, regular users are on average less motivated in school and have decreased attention and memoryA 2015 study showed college students who smoke marijuana have lower GPAs and take longer to graduate.

I have dozens of other stories: a student develops bipolar disorder after taking high doses of Adderall for months; a young woman remains depressed and suicidal after using LSD one time; a student has a head injury after falling when drunk. A young man comes to me because he is depressed and anxious; he is using alcohol or a different drug every night to feel better, but nothing is working.

No drug is benign when it comes to the college student.

Alcohol is associated with nearly 2,000 college student deaths, 700,000 assaults, and 100,000 sexual assaults per year, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Overdoses of narcotics (including heroin) and sedatives can lead to death. Heroin abuse is so prevalent in certain states that it has become a campaign issue in the upcoming presidential election.

A major problem with regular drug use is that it prevents college students from developing healthy coping skills for the academic stress, heartbreak, and loss that they may experience. They may choose to drink or use drugs when they are stressed out, rather than exercise, talk with friends, meditate, journal, or watch a funny television show.  

How often are college students using drugs and alcohol?  

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At some point in a 30 day period, 64.9% of students used alcohol, 16% used marijuana, and 10.9% used other drugs, according to the 2015 survey by the American College Health Association. Every day in a 30 day period, 0.9% of students used alcohol, 2.2% of students used marijuana, and 1.4% of students used other drugs.

Within the last year, many students used drugs not prescribed to them: 5.2% used painkillers, 3.2% used sedatives like Xanax, and 7.3% used stimulants like Adderall. You will also find LSD, mushrooms, cough syrup (dextromethorphan), and cocaine use on most campuses.

Abuse rates are high. Almost one out of four college students meet criteria for substance abuse or dependence.

Freshman year is a particularly vulnerable time for students. They are away from parental controls for the first time. And biologically, they are more prone to seeking new experiences without considering the consequences.

Parents are at the front lines of preventing drug abuse from middle school onwards. The following tips may help you promote wellness in your child.

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1. Practice positive parenting. The most important step you can take to prevent drug abuse is to have a warm and loving relationship with your child. You will be far more effective setting expectations for your child if you have a comfortable communication style.

2. Start a conversation about drugs early and continue through college. A 2014 study by Turrisi and Ray demonstrates that parents can reduce drinking in their college freshmen if they start communicating about alcohol with their children as early as their senior year of high school, and continue through freshman year of college. Three parent factors are crucial:  approval, accessibility, and monitoring. Students will drink less if they know their parents disapprove of excessive drinking; if parents are available to talk with them when needed; and if parents are asking about where their children are going and what they are doing.

3. Approach drug use as a health issue, not a moral issue. Studies show that binge drinking and use of drugs is more harmful to the adolescent brain than the adult brain. Whether parents use drugs or not, they should discourage drug use in their children as long as possible. If there is a family history of addiction, that information should be shared with the college student so he or she becomes aware of the risks. Addiction is disease, not a deficit in character.

4. Set limits on drug and alcohol use. Studies show that parents setting limits on alcohol use in college can significantly reduce alcohol consumption. Teach your child about the dangers of binge drinking - 5 or more drinks for a man and 4 or more drinks for a woman in a 2 hour period.  Encourage a far lower amount.

Marijuana is controversial, as many people including college students favor legalization. I advise my patients in clinic to refrain from smoking marijuana, but for parents who take a different stance, I recommend they at least discourage daily use.

As for other drugs, including non-prescribed Adderall, cocaine, LSD, and mushrooms, parents should oppose their use. The harm of these drugs far outweighs any perceived benefit.

In answer to the question, should parents just say no?  Don’t just say no – this is generally not enough to stop someone from using drugs or binge drinking.  Have a discussion starting in middle school that is loving and educational.   Set boundaries with your child until he graduates from college. Be empowered to promote positive change for your child’s current and future wellness.

Unfortunately, despite a parent’s best efforts, substance abuse and addiction may happen in the college years. If this is an issue you are facing, my next article will provide ideas on how a parent can respond to promote recovery.

©2016 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved

Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

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