Higher education: Drug & alcohol problem requires treatment, not punishment

By Kirsten Wong / For The Pitt News

According to popular media, college life includes over-the-top parties, unlimited freedom, acceptance of drugs and alcohol and, occasionally, a class or two. This is best portrayed in movies like “22 Jump Street,” “Pitch Perfect” and “Accepted.”

Such films tend to portray drugs and alcohol use among college students as inevitable, or even natural. However, the abuse of such substances is an alarming public health issue — an issue that we cannot afford to perceive as normal.

We need to examine the effects drugs and alcohol have on students’ academic and social lives. Once we understand just how prevalent abuse is, we can see why schools need to focus on education and treatment of the issue, rather than punishment.

Many students cannot escape the pervasive drinking culture that already exists among college students. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, almost 60 percent of college students aged 18 to 22 reported drinking alcohol in the past month. Of those who drank, almost 40 percent of them reported binge drinking in the past 30 days.

Activities other than drinking are available to college students, but it’s clear that the majority drink instead. So, even if some students don’t want to participate, they may feel like they have to drink to fit in.

While the college experience can glamorize large amounts of alcohol as part of the college party scene, this comes at a serious cost to students’ health and well-being. It can lead to drunk driving, assault, sexual abuse, academic problems, alcohol use disorder, arrest and even death.

In fact, according to the NIAAA, an estimated 4.86 million students between the ages of 18 and 24 drive under the influence of alcohol each year. Another estimated 696,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking, while 97,000 others are estimated to have been victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. Furthermore, about one quarter of students report having academic consequences as a result of their drinking.

Overall, about 19 percent of college students meet the requirements for alcohol use disorder, and an estimated 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries.

Along with alcohol, college students make up one of the largest groups of drug abusers nationwide, according to a 2015 report from Addiction Center. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that in 2013, the rate of current illicit drug use was 22.3 percent among full-time college students aged 18 to 22. The use of marijuana and prescription drugs such as Adderall is also on the rise — Addiction Center reports factors such as stress, course load and peer pressure have facilitated this increase.

In view of all the health risks that come with drug and alcohol abuse, it is startling to think that it is considered integral to the college experience. The normalcy of drinking and drug use in college may lead students to view it as a nonissue.

The NIAAA also reported that 19 percent of college students between the ages of 18 and 24 meet the criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence, but only 5 percent of them seek treatment assistance.

This significant treatment gap exemplifies the need for treatment and rehabilitation for those who are abusing drugs and alcohol. However, these students need to be educated on substance dependence.

Thankfully, Pitt requires all students to complete an online alcohol education course upon entering their first year — as well as attend a mandatory program featuring an alcohol education speaker who discusses issues about harm reduction, sexual assault, alcohol related emergencies and the effects of alcohol misuse while in college.

However, this education stops after freshman year.

In order to keep all students in the know of the signs of dependence, Pitt can develop an awareness campaign similar to It’s On Us for sexual assault — perhaps then they will better know when it is appropriate to seek help.

Fear of punishment and violations may also make students stray from getting the help they need.

In fact, there is strong disciplinary action among students who are caught using drugs and alcohol on campus that may deter them from getting treatment.

According to the Student Code of Conduct, The University of Pittsburgh Drug-Free Schools Policy states that the University prohibits the “unlawful manufacture, distribution, dispensation, possession or use of a controlled substance” on campus grounds. Violations of this policy include consequences such as suspension, dismissal, expulsion or fines up to $250.

These consequences can be costly to college students, especially ones with financial problems. And if they can’t afford the fines, suspension or expulsion for decisions made at such a relatively young age can affect a student’s long-term future. Therefore, reducing the scale of punishments will also shepherd more students into going to seek actual treatment.

If we shift the focus from punishing drug and alcohol violations to emphasizing treatment services — such as those in the Counseling Center — the treatment gap in college culture just might shrink.

Socially acceptable patterns of drug and alcohol abuse only hinder the value college has to offer — opportunities, resources, connections and high-quality education. It would be detrimental for students to lose these things to drug and alcohol problems.

In order for students to realize this, however, they need to learn what dependence is and that it is a health problem, not a problem of conduct.

Write to Kirsten Wong at [email protected]

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