The truth about college drug use

As substance abuse on college campuses rises, parents and students alike have questions about the influences at play and treatment options available.

Ophelia team
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College is a time of newfound independence, growth, and experimentation—all essential parts of becoming a young adult. But it’s not without its downsides, like substance abuse. And it’s not just alcohol. Marijuana, prescription drugs, and opioids can all be present too. As substance abuse on college campuses rises, parents and students alike have questions about the influences at play and treatment options available. 

How prevalent is opioid use on college campuses? 

On college campuses across the country, alcohol is the most popular drug of choice, and binge drinking is particularly common. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), over 50% of full-time college students between 18 and 22 years of age had consumed alcohol within the previous month. 

While opioid use among college students isn’t as prevalent as alcohol use, research suggests that prescription painkillers and illicit opioids are becoming more common on campus. Due to the high risk of overdose—made even worse by the presence of fentanyl in illicit drugs—this trend is concerning. 

What puts students at risk for addiction?

Peer pressure

College students turn to drugs for many reasons. Many begin drinking as a way of fitting in with their peers, and many feel that they are even expected to drink or use drugs. For others, alcohol and opioids present an avenue for escaping the stresses of college life and relaxing or calming down, especially when they see their classmates doing the same. Feeling pressured to experiment isn’t just about someone pushing drugs or alcohol—the power of suggestion and the belief that it’s all part of campus culture can be just as harmful. 


The high levels of stress, easy access to drugs, and prevalence of drug use among their peers culminate in an environment that is highly conducive to addiction. The stress from high expectations of academic success, peer pressure, and even social anxiety can also contribute to serious mental health issues in students, leading them to self-medicate with opioids and other drugs. This combination of factors makes building dependence easy while breaking the habit remains exceedingly difficult. 

Prescription abuse

One of the biggest contributors to opioids on college campuses? Drugs that are obtained legally from a medical professional to treat an injury or chronic pain. The over-prescription of these medications means that students may end up with too much of a painkiller or too powerful of a dose, leaving room for misuse or for a habit to form while in recovery from an injury or surgery. As the habit becomes further reinforced, many students find themselves with a higher tolerance for opioids. This can lead them to use higher doses or seek out more potent forms of the drug, such as fentanyl or heroin. 

How medication-assisted treatment can help students

The results of opioid use among college students vary broadly, from lowered academic performance to serious health concerns and a high risk of overdose. It’s important to take the matter seriously from the start and help affected students find a treatment solution that will help manage their habit while also uplifting them and not disrupting their education. Few college students find success in in-patient treatment programs, where they are isolated from their peers, mentors, and family. 

When joining such programs, students are usually forced to drop their classes for the semester, meaning they forfeit their tuition and fall behind in their degree track. These programs also put students in a new social group they didn’t choose and may not feel comfortable around. Even if you think, “Well, treatment isn’t supposed to be fun,” the lack of support and familiarity has consequences. When students are reintroduced to the campus environment, they’re at greater risk of relapse because they haven’t learned to manage their addiction in their everyday environment.

For this reason, many students see success with outpatient medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs because it fits into their real lives, including any social and psychological support they seek in addition to drug treatment. Most MAT programs use a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone to minimize cravings and withdrawal symptoms while also greatly reducing the risk of an overdose. 

Students who undergo MAT are able to stay in school and learn how to deal with their opioid use disorder in a familiar environment. A growing body of research supports the effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment for combating misuse, reducing overdoses, and saving lives. 

Finding support with Ophelia

We get it—college is a busy, challenging time. That’s why we designed our program to fit into your routine and not the other way around. Evidence-based treatment is one consultation call away. Get the care and support you deserve to make the most of this important chapter in your life.

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