College Students With Co-Occurring Disorders At Risk

Students who are on medication for depression, anxiety, ADHD or other psychiatric issues are particularly at risk when it comes to experimenting with drugs and alcohol recreationally in college.

College campuses are infamous for binge drinking and partying. This behavior puts many students at risk, but alcohol and drug abuse is especially dangerous for one vulnerable group — students who take psychotropic medications for psychiatric conditions such as depression, attention problems and anxiety.

A few years ago, the majority of students who visited campus counseling centers were suffering from the effects of a romantic breakup or grade-induced stress. Now almost half need help with suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, self-injury and drug or alcohol abuse.

Counselors are seeing more students with long histories of psychiatric disorders, including trauma and childhood sexual abuse. In the past, many of these young people would have been unable to attend college, but experts say that greater awareness has let to earlier diagnosis and treatment with psychotropic drugs.

“Normal” Partying May Mask Self Medication

Students with psychiatric disorders are more vulnerable to abusing alcohol and illicit drugs because they often are trying to self-medicate for feelings of social anxiety. The psychotropic medications that these students take can have mind-altering effects when combined with alcohol and illicit drugs.

Stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin allow them to drink longer while anti-anxiety medications like Xanax lower alcohol tolerance. In some cases, the effect of partying is the opposite of what students want — alcohol is a well known depressant that can undermine the effectiveness of prescription antidepressants.

Although psychotropic medications have warnings about the use of alcohol on their labels, many students are over-confident about their tolerance or ignore the warnings altogether. Some students take multiple medications, increasing the chances of suffering a negative reaction while under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs.

A study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that female students, students from racial and ethnic minorities and students who are the first in their family to attend college are at elevated risk of mental health issues while in college. About 80 percent of these students were found to use alcohol and to “drink to get drunk.”

There is current little media attention give to the risks of mixing alcohol, illicit drugs and psychotropic medication. Students who arrive on campus with medication need to be educated about the dangers of binge drinking and drug experimentation. Their friends also need to be aware so they can help monitor their medicated friends during parties. Schools can play an important role by discouraging binge drinking, monitoring student parties in on-campus housing and pressuring fraternities and sororities to do the same.

Click here to read more about Co-Occurring Disorders.