When Do College Students Start Using Drugs and Drinking?

There’s a season for everything, even for college students to first try illegal substances such as prescription painkillers and stimulants that haven’t been prescribed for them, as well as drinking alcohol while underage.

off-to-college-main-200x200 2These are among the findings just published in a report called “Monthly Variation in Substance Use Initiation Among Full-Time College Students” based on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual survey of 67,500 Americans ages 12 and older. The report is put out by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The new SAMHSA report, which uses data from 2002 to 2013, finds that the number of college students (defined as ages 18 to 22) who try marijuana for the first time and first-time underage drinking peaks in June. And winter is the peak season for college students to start using prescription drugs such as pain relievers and stimulants in non-medical ways, such as trying or buying someone else’s ADHD medicine or using prescription pain relievers that aren’t prescribed for them to get high.

Other key findings in the study:

  • About 1,000 college students start using marijuana every day, on average. But in June the number climbs to about 1,500 full-time college student marijuana initiates daily.
  • About 450,000 underage college students (ages 18 to 20) started drinking alcohol in the past year – about 1,200 a day, on average, throughout the year.  Those levels also peak in June, with an average of 1,883 underage students starting to drink each day. July, September and December also showed higher-than-average first-use-of-alcohol statistics.
  • About 251,000 college students started the non-medical use of pain relievers in the past year – an average of 700 new users each day. During December, however, the rate rises to 850 new users a day.
  • Every year about 137,000 full-time college students start using prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin that were not prescribed for them; about 400 start using on an average day. But during November, December and April the average daily initiation rate climbs to above 500, peaking at 585 in November.

Speaking in a press release about the new report, SAMHSA acting administrator Kana Enomoto said, “These findings show that college students are vulnerable to substance use at any time – not just when they are away at school.” That means, Enomoto added, that “parents, college counselors, faculty members, staff, mentors and other concerned people must take every opportunity to talk with college students about the risks of substance use and where they can turn to for help.”

Why Are Some Months Higher Than Others?

The SAMHSA report didn’t aim to answer the question of why some months result in more young adults starting to drink or use drugs than others, but experts have some theories. For example, the rise in the use of prescription stimulants coincides with the times of the school year when most colleges give midterms and final exams. That finding is particularly concerning because using these so-called “study drugs” have not been proven to improve academic performance and can pose serious medical risks. “These drugs are prescribed and dosed based on a lot of individual factors, so you don’t know how it will react in your body if a drug was not specifically prescribed for you,” says Richard Lucey, special assistant to the director at SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. Lucey says more kids starting to use stimulants in November, December and April wasn’t a surprise because “there are students under the mistaken belief that it will benefit their test scores even though that hasn’t been shown.”

The Most Vulnerable Months-01SAMHSA experts who reviewed the new report were surprised, though, about the initiation of underage drinking and marijuana in June. They hypothesize that it may be that once college students are home for summer and the penalties many colleges mete out for breaking drinking and drug laws are no longer an obstacle, it’s easier to indulge in drug use.

The first six weeks of college are often seen as the likeliest time for initiation of drinking alcohol because of the stress starting college can bring for some, says Lucey, noting that a lot of work is done on college campuses to educate incoming freshmen about the dangers of binge drinking and drug use, but he thinks the new SAMHSA report highlights the fact that prevention is a year-round job that might include stepping up prevention efforts around exam time and as students leave for summer break.

Parents Have a Role, Too

If prevention is an all-year job, that means parents need to do their part when their college-age son or daughter is home for summer or on fall or winter break. Parents have been doing a good job in getting important drug and alcohol abuse messages across to kids ages 12 to 17 — this age group has seen a big decline in the last 10 years — “but,” says Lucey, “there is an important need for parents to continue those conversations with their kids [since] summertime can be another entry point” for starting to use drugs or misuse drugs of all kinds. Questions parents should ask should include not just how the academic year was, but about your kid’s social life; whether they believe stimulant “study drugs” are helpful; and the impact they think drug and alcohol use will have on their lives, including potential employers seeing photos and videos on social media of a student under the influence.

Thomas Miller, LCSW, Family Wellness Program director at Mountainside Treatment Center in Canaan, Connecticut, says signs that indicate drug abuse include changes in appearance, mood, behavior, personality, appetite and hygiene; loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities; loss of motivation; increases or decreases in sleep; a sudden, unexplained need for money; secretive behavior; and changes in a your child’s social circle. “Parents should trust what they are seeing and extend that trust to their feelings as well,” says Miller. “Therefore, if any of these changes are happening or if your gut tells you that something is not right, then parents should invite their son or daughter into a conversation … which is an opportunity to invite their son or daughter to own whatever is going on and or to take responsibility about where they are at and whether they are or are not using drugs or alcohol.” Miller says reaching out to children in this way “creates a bridge back toward connection, honesty and open dialogue.” Even if your college student doesn’t admit to having any issues or problems with using, you can still leave the door open and encourage your child to seek you out.

To help facilitate conversations about drug and alcohol use, SAMHSA developed “The Sound of Your Voice,” a brief video to encourage parents and other concerned adults to talk with their college-bound young adults about alcohol use. There’s also a companion guide about how to have effective conversations with college-age youth about the risks of underage drinking and alcohol-related disorders.

This article is part of the Addiction.com series Off to College 2015: The First Six Weeks.”  To read more about how students can make a healthy transition to campus life, click here.

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