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Substance Abuse among Adult College Students

Adult college students often face more challenges than traditional college-age students. Juggling the needs of student life with family and a career increases stress levels and these demands may lead to substance abuse either to escape pressures or to increase academic performance with study drugs. Addressing the issues of increased commitments of class and study time and additional financial burden helps prevent stress from becoming unmanageable and presenting a risk for substance abuse.

Lifestyles of Adult Students

Often referred to as non-traditional students, adult college students are generally characterized as being 25 years or older while having been out of school for at least 5 years. Challenges faced by adult students often include:

  • Marriage – Reduction of time and emotional energy for loved ones can increase stress on the relationship.
  • Career – The adult student is often working a part or full-time job in addition to taking a full course load making it challenging to schedule classes. Several semesters can pass before a specific class needed is offered at a time when the adult student can attend.
  • Parenthood – Soccer practice, dance lessons, parent/teacher conferences, cooking for 3-5 people, play dates, doctor appointments, and helping the kids with homework – all of this is vastly time-consuming.
  • Home Ownership – Maintaining a home takes a financial toll as well as a significant time commitment for yard maintenance to home improvement projects and repairs.
  • Tuition – Many adult students are fully responsible for their tuition bill without help from parents or scholarships.
  • Relearning how to be a student – Having been out of school for 5 or more years, many adult students are concerned they won’t remember what they learned years ago or remember how to:
  • Study efficiently to make the best use of their limited time
  • Take notes effectively or
  • Utilize testing strategies
  • Self-care – With all of these demands, adult students need time for self-care. Designate ample time to ensure good sleep, family time, exercise and a healthy diet so the mind and body are equipped to manage all of these goals and responsibilities.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for substance abuse include:

  • Biological (history of substance abuse in the family),
  • Psychological (mental health issues such as burnout, depression or anxiety – just to name a few) and
  • Social (statistically, those with the highest social risk “… include male gender, being between 18 and 44 years of age, Native-American heritage, unmarried…, and lower socioeconomic status.”) (1)

It is important to remember that a risk factor for one person may not be for another. As an adult student, recognizing any possible increase in risk will help identify substance abuse problems early or prevent them altogether.

Substance Abuse as a Coping Mechanism

Substance abuse among adult college students is often a sign of burnout. Some attempt to reduce stress by escaping from reality through the use of mind-altering substances like cocaine and heroin or euphoric drugs like alcohol, ecstasy or marijuana. “Chronic heavy users of drugs and alcohol show impairments on tests of executive function.” (2) Executive functioning skills are responsible for planning, organizing and strategic follow through without which productivity and academic performance decline.

Others seek performance-enhancing drugs like prescription ADHD medications to enable them to stay awake and focused longer. Often referred to as “study buddies,” these stimulant medications are easily available, highly addictive and often abused. The initial effect may help students get through long days and still stay up late studying, but without the supervision of a doctor use can quickly turn into abuse – with potentially devastating results. Severe side effects have been reported when the drugs wear off including: mental confusion, mood swings, insomnia, panic attacks, and depression.

Going to college as an adult student is difficult enough without substance abuse as a factor. Take the time as a family to address concerns and develop a strategic plan so that becoming an adult college student is a family goal; not just an individual one. The added financial stress when raising a family and paying a mortgage is best addressed prior to enrolling in school so that an attainable financial plan is in place to reduce the emotional strain of debt.

The risk of substance abuse is significantly reduced when the adult student addresses the familial, career and financial stressors in advance of their studies. However, this is not always possible. If you or a loved one is coping with the stress of being an adult student by abusing drugs or alcohol, help is available right now. Our trained specialists are available any time of day or night to help start you on the path to recovery – and back toward academic success.

(1) Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD Drug Abuse and Addiction MedicineNet
(2) Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders Executive Function Definition

About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More