5 Risk Factors for Addiction Faced by College Students

College students face many unique challenges including social pressure, academic stress, and the demanding transition to adulthood.  Due to a combination of environmental factors, age-related obstacles, and cultural norms, college students are at a heightened risk of various mental health issues.  Being aware of the risks and taking proactive steps to prevent the onset or increased severity of these conditions is critical to the health and success of at-risk students. 


Although it is often stigmatized and undiagnosed, depression is an incredibly common mental illness that affects more than 30% of college students.  Symptoms can vary from mild to severe and may include sleep issues, overwhelming sadness, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite, and a constant negative outlook on life.  College life often comes with many dramatic life changes, including being away from family for the first time and a significantly increased workload. Depression can set in because an individual feels socially isolated or is having trouble coping with the pressure to succeed.  College students often enter this period of their lives excited and hopeful for the future and can be caught off guard by the emotional toll of adulthood. Students who experience these symptoms may be reluctant to seek professional help for fear of judgment or may overlook the signs that something serious is going on.  It is also possible to experience these symptoms without suffering from depression, so it is important to seek a professional mental health assessment. Without proper treatment, depression can lead to other serious mental illnesses, including an increased risk of suicide. 


Anxiety and depression often occur under similar circumstances and respond to many of the same triggers.  The increased stress of college and pressure to keep up with an active social life can lead to anxiety and panic disorder.  While some anxiety is normal, anxious thoughts and attacks that disrupt daily life and make it difficult to function qualify as a mental illness.  Like depression, anxiety is incredibly common, but many people who should seek treatment do not. Anxiety can be invisible, manifesting as uncontrollable negative self-talk and catastrophizing thoughts, or can be extremely physical, causing skin redness, sweats, shaking, and rapid heart rate.  Anxiety disorder tends to run in families and may be caused by an imbalance of mood-regulating chemicals in the brain. While some people experience anxiety attacks starting in childhood, it is more common for an anxiety disorder to set in as a young adult.  

One of the most common forms of anxiety disorder is social anxiety, in which a person lives in constant fear of performing inappropriately in social situations or embarrassing themselves.  This fear is exacerbated if the individual experiences physical signs of an attack such as sweating or blushing because they believe others will notice their nervousness and judge them for it.  Social anxiety can become so severe that it causes a person to avoid social situations entirely. In college, this condition can be especially detrimental, leading to social isolation and poor academic performance.  Many college students turn to drugs or alcohol to alleviate their anxiety symptoms while socializing, but this is a poor strategy that leads to more severe symptoms in the future. 


Substance abuse is common on college campuses, and the media and pop culture perpetuate the idea that drugs and alcohol are a rite of passage for college students.  Unfortunately, the normalization of this destructive behavior has led to an increase in addiction among college students, as well as drug and alcohol related deaths. Substance abuse is often built on a foundation of mental illness, but may also trigger psychological disorders.  Students with a history of trauma or mental health issues prior to the introduction of drugs or alcohol are more likely to develop an addiction. Conversely, students who participate in drug or alcohol abuse due to environmental factors, stress, or peer pressure may begin to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression.  

Addiction can ruin a young adult’s college career, making it impossible to succeed academically or build healthy connections with their peers.  Students with an addiction may begin to lie to family members or avoid coming home entirely or may seem to have a sudden unexplained need for more money from their parents.  It can be especially difficult for college students living with addictions on university campuses to admit they have a problem due to the prevalence of substance abuse around them.  It is important for loved ones to be aware of the signs and talk to their college-aged family members about seeking professional help if necessary. Addiction should always be treated in tandem with co-occurring mental illnesses by professionals equipped to provide trauma-informed care to prevent relapse and foster healing.     

The transition to college life can be extremely difficult, but with the right support, mental illnesses and addictions among young adults are treatable.  If you believe you or someone you love is struggling with addiction and mental health issues, now is the time to reach out for help. At Burning Tree West, you will find a team of compassionate, knowledgeable professionals who specialize in helping young adults struggling with addiction and their families.  Here, our clients tackle their addictions head-on and harness the power to restructure their lives in a way that fosters lasting sobriety. We believe that practicing recovery doesn’t have to mean an end to educational or career goals, but instead can become a fundamental part of a successful and fulfilling life.  For more information on how we can help, call us now at 972-962-7374