Where to Turn When Your College Student Has Substance Use Issues

“College is an at-risk environment,” says Emily Feinstein, JD, director of Health Law and Policy, at CASAColumbia, a New York City-based organization that researches addiction and substance use. It’s that simple. Every kid knows it and every parent knows it. But what no one knows for sure is who will get caught in the web. According to a CASAColumbia study, one in six full-time college students meets the clinical criteria for an alcohol or drug use disorder, more than double the rate of the general population.

off-to-college-main-200x200 2Substance abuse is defined as a pattern of drug use leading to significant problems or distress. “Not everyone develops addiction, but everyone is at risk, and heavy use increases that risk, particularly among young people,” says Feinstein.

Addiction or Normal Experimentation?

It’s true that there’s often “a period when first-year students do a great deal of experimenting – testing limits and boundaries,” says Nance Roy, Ed.D., clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and clinical director of the Jed/Clinton Campus Program. Most of the time, partying evens out though, she says, hopefully before things get too out of hand. “It’s usually by the middle of the semester when reality sets in, and their academic responsibilities begin to catch up with them,” Dr. Roy says.

Assuming that you and your college-age child have open lines of communication and have discussed the substances that might be around at her school, unless you have reason to think something might be wrong, you simply have to trust. And for the college student herself, she’ll need to ask herself if she’s in control. If grades start slipping, if a student has trouble making it to class, if she’s living for the next party or bar crawl, trouble is brewing.

“If every time you talk to your child he says he has been partying, it’s probably a indication that you should be communicating more,” says Amy Boyd Austin, coordinator of the Collegiate Recovery Center at the University of Vermont, in Burlington, and president-elect of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), which represents collegiate recovery programs and communities throughout the country. (College recovery programs help sober students thrive on campus with ongoing support and fun, sober activities. For more information on college recovery programs on campus, click here.) And for young adults who are struggling with drinking too much and/or using too many drugs, says Austin, “they will probably tell themselves, ‘I am not going to drink on Saturday night, or another night,’ to see if they can minimize the risk and impact. They will see if it is something they miss or that they can do without.” As a parent, you can support them at this time by checking in more frequently, especially at vulnerable moments, Feinstein adds: “Risky times include after an exam, Friday night and Saturday morning. It’s good to remind your child – who may be struggling with drugs – to exercise, hang out with kids who don’t use drugs, pay attention to their triggers.” Other steps that college kids can take, and parents can support, to use less, according to Feinstein include:

  • Be honest with your friends about what’s going on and get them on board to help you cut down.
  • Put a non-alcoholic drink in a red Solo cup to fit in while staying sober.
  • Get your friends to do activities that don’t include alcohol.
  • Make new friends if yours are all using drugs and drinking.
  • Join new clubs and teams.
  • Volunteer.

What Parents Can Do

“If you sense something is going on and your kid says he is fine, tell him you just want him to check in [with you] a little more,” says Victor Schwartz, MD, medical director of the JED Foundation in New York City, a non-profit that aims to promote emotional health and prevent suicide. Dr. Schwartz is adamant that even if your child doesn’t allow you access to his or her academic records, you can still communicate your concerns about your son or daughter without violating privacy rules. “You, as a parent, can always tell the college that you are concerned about your child and they can listen, and if they tell you they can’t, they are just wrong,” stresses Schwartz. “If you are really worried, call the dean of students or the head of student affairs — what this person is called varies at different colleges and universities. Let them know why you are concerned, and they can make an observation about your child. The dean of students can sit the student down and make sure she is okay. The worst thing that can happen is that the student says, ‘Stop bothering me.’”

Parents also may be able to check in with the residential assistant  (RA) in their child’s dorm. Since RAs are students themselves, privacy laws don’t apply – but each school has different rules about contact. And if all else fails, “you may just need to get to the college and lay eyes on your child,” says Mandi Silverman, PsyD, of the Child Mind Institute, in New York City. “It could turn out that they were weird on the phone for a totally different reason than you thought, or they could be high. But if you go there and see them, you will know.”

Ultimately, if your child is having difficulty stopping drinking and/or using drugs, or cutting down – or even if they can but want support – the next step is for them to talk to a therapist or counselor. As a parent you should suggest it, or insist upon it, if you think something harmful is going on.

Where Students Can Turn for Help

As a student, you should reach out for help as soon as you realize you’re losing your focus. Your first line of help is to talk to your parents, if possible. You can also look for guidance elsewhere, according to the experts, by talking to the residential assistant  in your dorm. This is usually an older student with some training in how to guide students who need help with a variety of issues – including addiction, eating disorders, depression, transition issues and academic troubles. “An RA is tuned in to all of the resources” the school has to offer, says Dr. Silverman. The main thing is for the student to find someone he or she can talk to. “Anyone who is willing to listen and be supportive,” says Amy Boyd Austin, is a good place to start.

A place to turn is often close by on campus. “Go to the college counseling center and see what kind of resources they have,” says Feinstein. “If you have a mild addiction, they may be able to help right there.” If your needs require more care than the campus counseling or health center can provide, they can help you find a licensed treatment provider.” (CASAColumbia has a guide to getting quality treatment on their website; see the Resources section below.)

Other people who can help include:

  • A coach you trust
  • A faculty member who heads up a club you’re a member of
  • The health clinic. “For some kids, this is a more acceptable option than the counseling center,” notes Austin.
  • A member of the residential life staff
  • An off-campus counselor
  • A clergy member

Whichever is the right fit for you, just “surround yourself with a supportive community,” says Feinstein. “Go to AA or NA or any other 12-step program,” suggests Feinstein.

Staying in School While Dealing with Addiction

“Some kids who are having problems go to AA and don’t miss a beat at school,” says Austin. “But sometimes you have to go beyond the campus to an intensive outpatient program or a partial-day program.” Some may need to go to a residential (in-patient) rehab facility.

But with any luck, your college has a collegiate recovery program (CRP) that can help you stay in school. “There are 135 collegiate recovery programs throughout the country,” says Feinstein. “And even if your college doesn’t have such a sophisticated program, they may offer sober events.” The criteria for joining a CRP are different at each school. “Sometimes the only criterion is going to a 12-step program for a week. Every CRP is different, but usually [being granted sober] housing requires [being] six months clean,” Austin explains.

“If there’s no sober community at your college, you may have to transfer,” says Feinstein. She suggests that if your parents are supportive, living at home and commuting nearby to school could be another good option. “You can transfer back [to a school that’s further away] once your addiction is under control.” And she adds, on a positive note: “Students who use alcohol or drugs excessively in college often stop using drugs or begin drinking in moderation after they graduate and assume adult roles such as starting a career or family.”

Resources You Can Use Right Now

Alcoholics Anonymous

The Association for Recovery in Higher Education

The CASAColumbia Guide to Quality Addiction Treatment

The JED Foundation’s ULifeline

Narcotics Anonymous

National Institute on Drug Abuse

SAMHSA Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator

SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

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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