Scope of the Problem
An individual’s university experience is a period characterized by transition and academic pressures as well as newfound independence from parental supervision. During these years, opportunities to experiment with alcohol and illicit drugs increase.
Despite illegality, illicit drugs are a very real part of student culture. Although the majority of students will likely never encounter them, these drugs exist within social circles across university campuses.
According to a Statistics Canada survey conducted in 2015, nine percent of young adults aged 18-24 had used at least one of five illicit drugs in the past year. This rate is two times higher than individuals ages 15-19, and nine times higher than adults over the age of 25.
Additionally, 83 percent of young adults have tried alcohol and displayed the riskiest patterns of alcohol consumption, with 28 percent of young adult drinkers exceeding the guideline for chronic risk.
Exposure to new social situations, stressors of adjusting to new environments, heavy course loads, living in residence and many other aspects of student life increase the risk of university drug abuse.
These risks can be increased in men, those living independently, members of upper-middle class to upper class families and those experiencing financial burden.
Protective factors include older age, higher level of religiosity and living with parents.
The use of pharmaceutical drugs is also present among students, as shown by research conducted by Health Canada, which found that about four percent of students who do not have medical prescriptions take ADHD drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, or Concerta to cope with academic demands. These students obtain these drugs by either faking ADHD symptoms and obtaining a prescription or, more commonly, by buying it from friends who have a prescription.
Students often use pharmaceutical drugs to cope with stressful times, to finish an assignment or study during exam period.
For many, drug use is simply recreational, social and controllable. However, what can start off as just another way to have fun can eventually lead to some serious consequences.
University students may turn to dangerous drug and alcohol use for a number of reasons, including high stress, curiosity and peer pressure.
Effects of Drug Use
It is often believed that drug use in moderation is a normal part of the university experience, and does not warrant concern. However, there are many problems that can stem from occasional use.
Some acute negative effects include missing class, falling behind in school and a lack of motivation.
In extreme circumstances, more serious consequences could include arrest, deterioration in health and development of mental health problems.
For one student, who will be referred to as Nathan*, what started off as recreational drug use eventually developed into a serious addiction.
“I started out smoking weed when I was about 16. I was just having fun at the time,” said Nathan. “I never used hard drugs until I got to university. In second year I got my wisdom teeth removed. I got a prescription for Percocets and fell in love. Once I got back to school, I tried everything.”
“I got hooked on cocaine. It started off only on weekends, then I started using it three to four times a week. I’d do it in the mornings, when I was playing video games, chill drinking nights. Eventually days didn’t feel normal without it.”
Although Nathan has since stopped doing cocaine, he said it’s normal for his friends to do it. He says friends are the only way to get drugs in the first place.
“It’s about who you know. If you were trying to get molly or coke, you would talk to someone you know and they would talk to the dealer.”
Changing the Culture on Campus
What all this shows is that drug use is a reality of the student experiences. Given that drug use happens at universities for a myriad of reasons, a blanket ban on substances is not the answer.
University policies should instead aim to minimize harmful effects rather than simply condemning and prohibiting them. This is important, because strict prohibitionist policies increase stigma and discourage engagement with support services.
Helping to reduce the pressure students face—through increased, accessible academic support and mental health treatments—can help reduce the risk factors that lead some students to abuse illicit drugs.
Addiction Treatment for University Students
If left untreated, harmful substances can have negative effects on a student’s mind and body. If a tolerance or addiction forms, students can develop a dependence or craving.
The Fredericton Addictions & Mental Health Services provides a range of services for individuals affected by substance abuse. This is a free, voluntary service and can be accessed with or without a referral.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of students.