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College Drinking and Students’ Mental Health

Collegiate years provide the perfect cover for alcohol abuse.

College provides the ultimate cover for drinking and taking (some but not all) drugs. One dominant theme I hear from students is “we work hard therefore we deserve to party hard.” The mythology tells us partying is just a part of the college experience; it is what kids that age do. Talking to older people, many will excuse and even justify students’ behavior as being “just what we did when we were in college.” Well, yes and no. This is perhaps true for those who partied hard in college but then made a successful transition to post-graduation living. It isn’t true for those who didn’t make that transition so well or for whom that transition took much longer.

For those who believe partying is a rite of passage for all students and your child will be okay because you turned out okay, this piece is for you.

What’s different now is that many students are wrestling with significant mental health issues diagnosed by a professional. The two most common are anxiety and depression. There is also a number of students with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and panic attacks according to the 2017 survey of the American College Health Association. [i] With diagnoses often come medications along with counseling, behavioral modification treatments and techniques. As high school students, parents often play a significant role managing their child’s mental and physical health. Then their children go off to college and for the first time are in charge of managing their own lives. The timing perhaps couldn’t be worse.

College is a time of transition when young people have more freedom and opportunity to cultivate friendships with people whom they choose. Total strangers get thrown together in tight living quarters. Everything is new and strange. Many students are really scared about where their classes meet, how to buy books, and how to find someone to sit with at the caf. Some students see the transition to college as the time to reinvent themselves, cultivating new interests and pursuits. Some will ditch their old nicknames or decide to go by different versions of their names. First year students often treat themselves like an etch-a-sketch toy; they give themselves a good shake and start drawing anew.

The transition to college is also a time when students decide to go off their medications or stop taking them as prescribed. Some students save their ADHD medications to share with their friends in the belief they will help them do better on tests and papers. It is also when students who have never really consumed alcohol begin; we call this “the college effect.” A recent national study indicates that 20% of college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder.[ii] Many of the most common medications students take warn against mixing with alcohol. Students suffering from anxiety and depression who become stressed may start to self-medicate with alcohol. This may be especially true for people who experience social anxiety; alcohol is a disinhibitor that can take the edge of meeting new people or being in large groups of people. It seems a readily available solution.

Students use marijuana with similar intent. I more frequently hear from students that marijuana helps them to deal with their stress and anxiety. Admittedly, there are very few studies on the role of marijuana on mental health. At least one study indicates that while there may be some positive effect of marijuana on stress and anxiety, that effect is very dose-dependent. A very small dose may have positive effects but higher doses leave people feeling more stressed and anxious.[iii] I am very skeptical that college students smoking pot would be able to find that right dosage and would instead err on the side of too much. These students will become more stressed and anxious, which is compounded by a loss of motivation marijuana causes.

If social life is challenging and stressful, academic life is more so. Teaching for 25 years, I can fill a file cabinet with anecdotal evidence. What I see is that students prioritize one class at a time; this week it’s all bio because of a big test so she falls behind in her other three. Next week the massive paper is due in English so she skips a bio class and starts pulling a few all nighters. Since the philosophy class only has four papers, she can skip a few classes and get notes from her hallmate. By mid-terms, such a student may be doing well in one or two classes but struggling in the others. The pace accelerates as the semester progresses, so the strategy of one at a time becomes less effective. And by the last two weeks, many students go off the rails. For students who had always done well in high school, the lack of success can be utterly foreign and debilitating. And here we must also address what counts as not doing well. Anything less than an A may be regarded as failure. Now add to the mix various extra-curricular activities such as athletics, student organizations, and on- or off-campus employment. There simply are not enough hours in the day.

So, parents, your task is daunting and requires striking a balance in ever-changing conditions. You’ve got to let your children become adults at college; your involvement can’t mediate their experiences. Don’t helicopter and certainly don’t snow plow. Explore the school’s various academic and health services with your child. Educate yourself about the conditions under which schools may contact you and what information the school may disclose. If college officials contact you because your child has some alcohol or drug infraction or has come to the attention of the school because of a concern for her well-being or academic performance, take it seriously. In many cases, a student will need to grant permission for school officials to speak with you. If your child does have physical or mental health concerns, be proactive in coming to shared agreements between the two of you and the school before the academic year begins. Revisit these agreements as the semester progresses.




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