I’ll never forget the first few days of my son’s freshman year of college. While he attended his orientation, the parents attended theirs, and were given some alarming facts about drug and alcohol problems in college. We learned that the local police are on the look-out for under-age drinkers during the first few weeks of school and that students who have been caught with drugs in the dorms have been asked to leave school.
Would my son make the right choices? Would I get call in the middle of the night that he is in jail for an alcohol offense? Would he end up on the hospital or worse with alcohol poisoning?
As far as I know, my son made good choices during his college years. However, as a college mental health psychiatrist for over twenty years, I’ve seen students experience a range of issues related to drug and alcohol problems in college, from frequent blackouts to psychotic or suicidal episodes that land them in the emergency room.
Is there anything a parent can do to prevent these problems? There is evidence that parent interventions during high school and beyond can impact a college student’s drug and alcohol use. Moreover, in my practice, I’ve seen how parent interventions can steer students back on track.
How to Help Prevent Drug and Alcohol Problems in College
1. Create a positive parenting relationship with your child.
Let your child know what you are proud of and how you have seen them mature. While teenagers can test parents’ patience, foster enough good will between the two of you so that your child will listen if they do have a problem.
2. Educate yourself about the current drug and alcohol climate on campus.
Alcohol by far is the most problematic substance on campus. One of three students reported binge drinking (5 or more drinks in a sitting) at least once in a two-week period. Alcohol is associated with nearly 2000 college student deaths and 100,000 sexual assaults per year. In a month’s time, nearly one in five students used marijuana and over one in ten used other drugs like stimulants, sedatives, or opioids.
3. Look for any signs that your child has a drug or alcohol problem starting now.
You want to address any drug or alcohol problems before your child starts college, because the problems are bound to get worse on campus. Poor grades, irritability, school discipline problems, poor hygiene, and increased spending can all be indications of a substance issue. Obtain counseling and a drug screen for your child as soon as possible.
4. Communicate your expectations regarding alcohol starting senior year of high school and beyond.
Studies show that parents setting limits on the number of drinks and disapproving of binge drinking can help reduce the amount of alcohol a student consumes freshman year of college. Saying no to drinking altogether is not likely not to work, as 2 of 3 college students consumed alcohol within the last month.
Being available to talk to and asking questions about what your child is doing when they go out with friends can also lead to a reduction in alcohol use. Discourage any drinking if your child experiences depression or anxiety, frequently drinks too much, or has other problematic drinking behaviors.
5. Communicate your concerns regarding drug use.
I would recommend you discourage use of all non-prescribed drugs. Their risk to your child’s health and academic progress far outweighs any perceived benefit. If your child is taking a friend’s ADHD medication to study all night, let them know they are at risk for high blood pressure or a heart arrhythmia. I’ve seen students who take hallucinogens like mushrooms or LSD become depressed and suicidal.
Opioids like oxycodone, heroin, and fentanyl are extremely dangerous and easy to overdose on; if your child takes opioids, they should get addiction treatment immediately. As for marijuana, it may seem benign compared to the other drugs, but more frequent use can negatively impact motivation and your child’s GPA. Daily use can increase the risk of psychosis in those with a genetic predisposition due to THC content that is 3 times what it was three decades ago.
6. Take any alcohol or drug conduct violations during college seriously.
Was this just typical freshman behavior or is there something more serious going on with your child? Often, the university will mandate counseling after a conduct violation related to substance use. If the university does not, I recommend you encourage your child to see a counselor at least a few times to assess whether a more serious problem exists.
7. If your college student develops a drug or alcohol problem despite all your best efforts, speak to an addiction specialist to get advice.
You will have complicated decisions to make about whether or not to support your child staying in college and how to motivate them to get treatment. Some schools may have an addiction specialist that you and your child can talk to. Otherwise, the school may be able to refer you to specialist off campus.
Now is the time to start a dialogue about drugs and alcohol problems in college. Look for openings to begin the discussion, like if your child mentions something they heard in the news – the tragic death of a rock star from a drug overdose. Or they express concern about a friend struggling with an alcohol problem. The National Institute of Drug and Alcohol has great information for parents and teenagers about substance abuse, which you can review together. Partner with your child now to promote their health and wellness in the college years.
Photo credit: Laura LaRose
National College Health Assessment – American College Health Association
Marcia Morris, M.D. is a psychiatrist who has provided care to university students for over twenty years, and also the mother of a college student and a graduate student. She is the author of The Campus Cure: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students
She writes a parenting blog for Psychology Today on College Wellness. In her writing and clinical practice, she is passionate about working with families to promote mental health and wellness. Dr. Morris is an Associate Professor in the University of Florida College of Medicine and Associate Program Director for Student Health Psychiatry. She attended Harvard College, Yale School of Medicine, and the New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center psychiatry residency program.