A Prescription for Parents

How do you know when your child at college needs help


In the college setting where large groups of people are forging their way into relationships and trying to prove themselves to a bunch of strangers, some believe that alcohol and drugs offer an easy way to socialize and have fun—while at the same time masking personal fears and uncertainties. Unfortunately, as Glen found out, this coping mechanism easily leads to abuse and addiction.

I hear so many stories like Glenn’s that illustrate my belief that kids aren’t drinking to excess on college campuses only to “party.” Many abuse alcohol and drugs because they feel so vulnerable and unsure of themselves and this numbs their pain.

Drug Abuse

It’s no secret that drug abuse is widespread on college campuses across the country. Freely available legal drugs frequently abused include prescribed medications, inhalants (glues, aerosols, and solvents), and over-the-counter cough, cold, sleep, and diet medications. Illegal drugs of choice include marijuana; stimulants (cocaine and its different forms, methamphetamine, “ice” (dexroamphetamine); hallucinogens, such as LSD, PCP, or the so-called designer drug MDMA (Ecstasy); opiates, such as heroin or methadone.

Many college kids experiment with drugs as part of their social development, but there are others who use drugs as a coping mechanism and ultimately get hooked. Those at high risk for drug abuse include those with pre-existing genetic risk factors, those suffering chronic stress, those with bipolar or other mood disorders, those who feel they are socially isolated and don’t belong, and those who feel overly pressured to achieve with no sense that there is a viable way out. I would suspect that these risk factors affect the majority of college students.

Mind-altering substances can “medicate” the world away or at least dull the pain for a while. They give apprehensive and socially awkward kids the comfort of euphoria and bravado, and they give overwhelmed high achievers a sense of distance and space that they cannot feel in their daily grind. They also offer a way to rebel against controlling parents because drug use is among the few activities (along with sex) in which they can participate without their parents dictating every move.

In addition to those hoping to dull the pain of this developmentally difficult period of life, there are others who abuse drugs to gain an academic advantage in this highly competitive world. In a practice called pharming, students illegally use prescription drugs for purposes other than what they’re prescribed for. The drugs most commonly used are Adderall and Ritalin, The small blue or orange pills are typically prescribed for children and adults with attention-deficit disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But their effects on normal adults make it sound like a wonder drug. Specialists say they help students to focus longer and get work done quicker.

“To keep eating disorders from ruining their college years, our daughters need to hear from us over and over again that their value as human beings has nothing to do with the size of their body.”

”They can be viewed as brain steroids, because in some way the drugs give students an unfair advantage,” says Dr. Eric Heiligenstein, director of clinical psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin. ”The productivity levels are so much higher when comparing with students who do not use the medication. Students are able to accumulate more information in a shorter time frame. These drugs keep you awake longer. They minimize fatigue and help maintain a high performance level.” [Kahn 2003]

But, as is typical with all shortcuts promising to enhance performance, the drugs, chemical cousins of cocaine, have negative side effects. They can cause increased heart and respiratory rates, elevated blood pressure, sleep deprivation, dry mouth, and lack of appetite. They can cause paranoia. They can lead to withdrawal symptoms. And, in rare cases, they have been linked to aggression and cardiac arrhythmia. [Khan 2003]

In this highly competitive world these young adults live in, this is one more instance where they must choose between their overall health and their desire for superior performance.