Student Athletes and Substance Abuse
Category: Substance Abuse
2 August 2019,
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Addiction and substance abuse are often thought of as the problems of slackers and delinquents, especially in the case of teens and young adults.  The truth is that many of the most successful and ambitious students choose to use drugs and alcohol in college, and some even become addicted. It is becoming increasingly common for issues surrounding substance abuse to occur among student athletes.  Being a student athlete can be incredibly demanding, and at times, very stressful. Access to drugs and alcohol is common on most college campuses, and students who become overwhelmed with the pressures of their many responsibilities may be driven to self-medicate.  This behavior can lead to many serious consequences, including addiction. Recognizing the signs of addiction early on and taking steps to achieve and maintain sobriety is critical for student athletes to preserve their health and future success. 

The most well-known reason that athletes turn to drug use is to enhance their performance.  College and professional athletes alike have been known to use performance-enhancing drugs to push their bodies to the limit and gain a leg up against the competition.  While these drugs don’t usually have intoxicating effects, they do trigger the dopamine reward system in the brain associated with addiction and can lead to withdrawal when the user decides to quit.  The use of these drugs has been banned from college sports and can have serious consequences, not only for the health and success of a student athlete, but also through school punishment or expulsion.  Steroids, one of the most commonly used performance-enhancing drugs, have an especially serious effect on young users due to ongoing brain development. The consequences of steroid abuse can be frightening and potentially permanent, including insomnia, delusions, high blood pressure, and infertility.

There are many reasons student athletes may turn to drugs or alcohol aside from the pressure to perform.  Being an athlete comes with the risk of injury, which often leads to a prescription for opioid pain relievers.  These pain medications are extremely addictive, and can easily lead to abuse. America is currently experiencing an opioid crisis, with approximately half a million people dying as a result of painkiller misuse since 2000.  The unique position of athletes puts them at an increased risk of opioid exposure at a much younger age than most individuals. Athletes are often in a rush to return to their sport rather than waiting an appropriate amount of time for their bodies to heal, and prescription painkillers can become a crutch used to ignore the physical reality of injury.  These drugs can also induce a high, which for many student athletes who spent their high school years avoiding drugs and alcohol, may be an enticing new experience. Additionally, while the use of painkillers may begin as a response to injury, students may choose to use them to cope with the stress of school and athletic pressure.

Alcohol use on college campuses is nothing new, but in recent years some light has been shed on the potential for addiction and consequences of binge drinking that go far beyond the college years.  While student athletes aren’t always associated with partying and heavy drinking, research has shown they are no exception when it comes to alcohol abuse. A study conducted in 2013 indicated that roughly 40% of student athletes reported binge drinking, meaning drinking four or more drinks in one sitting for women, and five or more drinks in one sitting for men.  About 30% of these drinkers reported experiencing blackouts, which are often indicators of developing an addiction. Many of these students also reported performing poorly in class or at practice as a result of alcohol use.   

Just like any other group of young adults, student athletes experience their fair share of mental health struggles.  While staying active and exercising regularly is known to fight symptoms of depression and anxiety, the extreme demands placed upon student athletes can exacerbate those symptoms.  Student athletes may be less likely to identify their mental illnesses or seek help from a medical professional or counselor. Instead, they may turn to drugs and alcohol to manage their emotions and numb their anxious and depressive thoughts.  Unfortunately, drug and alcohol use are notorious for the long-term increase of depression and anxiety, and using substances to self-medicate in this way can lead to a lifetime battle against the cycle of addiction and poor mental health.

Student athletes who are using drugs or alcohol for any of these reasons, or are simply unhappy with their relationship with these substances, should consider seeking help as soon as possible.  Early intervention is key in preventing addiction or beginning on the road to recovery if an addiction has already developed. If you or someone you love is abusing drugs or alcohol, now is the time to reach out and begin treatment.  At Burning Tree West, you will find a team of compassionate, knowledgeable professionals ready to coach each client through the 12-steps and beyond. By structuring treatment to fit individual needs, including the identification of co-occurring disorders, Burning Tree West facilitates an environment of healing and holistic wellness.  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 active 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

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