The transition to college is a pivotal moment in any young person’s life, often marked by newfound independence, academic pressures, and social opportunities. This includes teenagers attending college for the very first time but can also include college students returning to school after summer break or students transferring from one school to another. However, during this pivotal moment many college students may also take on an overwhelming amount of stress and pressure. Stressors abound on any college campus, including finding a social community and trying to fit in, the academic pressure of classes and grades, and trying to live up to their own and their family’s expectations of themselves, all while occurring at an important developmental stage in their life.

These stressors can create many mental health challenges for any student, and especially for students that may already deal with mental health conditions, or a history of substance use or substance misuse. It is not uncommon for college students to deal with mental health issues like anxiety and depression, as well as issues such as low self-esteem, learning disabilities, or issues with peer pressure. Most teenagers in some form or fashion suffer from yearning to fit in with their peers, which can also place a lot of stress and pressure on a young college student. It is not surprising that there is currently a mental health crisis occurring now on college campuses nationwide, with rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation having never been higher than during the present time.

The majority of college students enrolled in schools throughout America today meet criteria for at least one mental health diagnosis, and many meet criteria for several. Unfortunately, many counseling centers on college campuses are overwhelmed, often being understaffed to support students with burned out clinicians and extremely long waitlists. Additionally, many students do not seek help for mental health issues while in college at the college counseling centers, instead staying silent due to stigma, embarrassment, or shame. This in turn leads students down a dangerous path as, for many college students, mental health issue they are suffering from become a gateway to drugs and alcohol, substance abuse and substance misuse, and addiction. As students suffering from the pressures and challenges of college also deal with the mental health issues that arise, drug and alcohol use typically becomes unavoidable, especially in the college environment. The colleges are unaware or not totally equipped to help, students don’t disclose their issues to the college or to their parents, and ultimately their academics suffer, their behaviors create a crisis, and suddenly their parents and/or the school are trying to help them seek help from an addiction treatment provider.

There is a complex relationship between mental health challenges and addiction in college students. Here are some of the underlying factors that make this connection so prevalent, and therefore, so concerning for students, parents, and the colleges.

  • Self-Medication as a Coping Mechanism

One significant way in which mental health issues can lead to addiction among college students is through self-medication. Many students who already suffer from mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, or PTSD may turn to substances like alcohol, marijuana, or prescription opioids to alleviate their emotional distress and discomfort. This temporarily relieves their mental health symptoms. Because drugs and alcohol work to escape from mental health issues, they can be an appealing coping mechanism. However, because they are not seeing a mental health professional, this self-medicating often leads students down a dangerous path where self-medication turns into substance misuse and then full-blown active addiction.

  • Increased Vulnerability to Peer Pressure

College campuses often expose students to social situations where substance use is prevalent and widely available. Many social situations in college involve or even revolve around alcohol and other drugs. Students grappling with mental health issues might be more susceptible to peer pressure as they seek social acceptance. These students may engage in substance use to fit in with their peers, be liked, gain acceptance, overcome loneliness, or cope with the anxiety and social discomfort that often accompany mental health conditions.

  • Stress and the Escalating Cycle

College life is often incredibly stressful due to academic pressures, financial concerns, relationship issues, and learning to fit in and navigate a new environment with new people. Students suffering from mental health issues may already have compromised coping mechanisms, and as they face mounting stressors, they may resort to drugs and alcohol as a way to manage overwhelming feelings. This can create a destructive cycle where substance abuse exacerbates their mental health issues, leading to increased stress and discomfort, and ultimately rapidly increased use of substances.

  • Genetic and Environmental Factors

Both addiction and mental health issues have genetic and environmental components. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to both conditions, increasing their susceptibility to addiction when they are faced with mental health issues. Additionally, growing up in an environment where drugs and alcohol use is prevalent can increase the risk of both mental health problems and substance abuse for the student when they find themselves alone and independent on a college campus.

  • The Connection of Mental Health and Addiction

It is a fact that addiction and mental health issues are often interconnected. Virtually all individuals that suffer from addiction also suffer from at least one diagnosable mental health condition. Substance misuse can also lead to the development of new mental health conditions or worsen existing mental health issues. This interplay between the two creates a complex dynamic that can be challenging to break free from, especially for college students who are navigating the pressures, stressors, and discomfort of academics and the college social life.

Additionally, parents of college students should be aware of several important factors when it comes to college students, mental health, and addiction. Being informed can help parents support their children effectively and aid their children in making healthier choices. It will also aid parents in making sure the colleges and universities are aware of any issues the student may be having, or to take action if their child needs help for mental health or addiction. Here are some key things parents should know:

  • Understanding the College Environment: College can be a time of increased independence and exposure to new experiences, including social situations that involve alcohol and other drugs. Parents should recognize that their child may face more opportunities and pressures related to substance use during their period in their lives.
  • Communication is Key: Open and non-judgmental communication is crucial for parents to have with their college students. Parents should maintain a supportive and understanding relationship with their college-aged children. Encourage them to talk about their experiences, challenges, struggles, successes, and feelings. This should also include an open dialogue about their relationship with substances. 
  • Know the Warning Signs: Parents should be aware of the signs of addiction, which may include changes in behavior or attitude, changes in appearance or hygiene, declining academic performance, withdrawal from social activities or family relationships, mood swings, changes in sleep patterns, any physical symptoms like bloodshot eyes or weight loss. 
  • Peer Pressure: Discuss peer pressure and strategies for handling or managing it. Parents should help their children develop assertiveness skills and confidence in making healthy choices and decisions, even in situations where they may feel pressured to use substances.
  • Mental Health Awareness: Parents need to recognize the link between mental health issues and substance abuse. If the child already deals with mental health issues, they may be more susceptible to use drugs and alcohol while at school and be at greater risk for developing addiction. Parents should stay attuned to their child’s emotional well-being and encourage them to seek help if they are experiencing mental health challenges or find themselves wrapped up in a dangerous relationship with drugs and alcohol. 
  • Educate About Risks: Parents should provide their child with information about the risks and consequences of drug and alcohol use, especially if they already deal with mental health issues. Share facts about the physical, academic, legal, and social repercussions that can often result from addiction, but also share support and resources if they may be needed. 
  • Set Expectations and Boundaries: It is important that parents establish clear expectations regarding their feelings about drug and alcohol use. Discuss family values and rules and be clear about boundaries or consequences that the parents are willing to hold. An example of this is, if the child finds they are unable to manage their mental health issue or find that they have a problem with drugs and alcohol, the parents’ boundary is that they will expect and help the child access professional care and treatment. 
  • Encourage Acting Responsible: It is beyond expectation that a college student will not engage in college drinking. However, parents can encourage their children to drink responsibility. Emphasize moderation, the importance of knowing one’s limits, the dangers of binge drinking and putting themselves in dangerous situations, and never drinking and driving. 
  • Know the Resources: Parents should familiarize themselves and their children with the resources available on campus if they are dealing with a mental health issue or a drug and alcohol problem. Learn what the college offers in terms of student support, counseling, prevention and education. Learn about student organizations on campus. If the child already has support for their mental health in the form of a therapist or counselor, remind them to stay engaged. Some colleges have Collegiate Recovery Organizations or Collegiate Recovery Communities, which are organizations on campus for students that are sober and living in recovery. 
  • Stay Connected: It is important for parents to respect their child’ independence, it is also important that parents maintain regular contact with their college student and connect with them emotionally. Parents should not be helicopter parents or bulldozer parents, but parents should check in with their college students regularly, ask them about their experiences, and offer support when needed. 
  • Seek Help if Necessary: If parents feel their child is struggling with mental health or addiction issues, it is vital to not wait and to immediately seek professional help. It is important to loop in the college, where someone in student affairs or a clinical at the college counseling center. Seek help from a psychiatrist, therapist, counselor, or addiction treatment center. Early intervention is essential in effectively addressing these mental health and addiction issues, and ensuring the college student moves towards a place of health and wellness.

If you or someone you know needs help for addiction or co-occurring disorder issues, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive dual-diagnosis addiction treatment in the Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at (866) 929-4318 or email our team at For more information on all of our drug addiction, alcohol addiction, and co-occurring disorder services and recovery resources, please visit our website at

College Students in lecture hall

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