Opiate addiction is an equal opportunity destroyer of people’s lives. Regardless of age, socioeconomic background or other demographic, opiate abuse and addiction ruins the lives of users, their families and other loved ones. As the nation’s opioid crisis grows, the focus has shifted on those populations that are most vulnerable to opiate addiction. The connection between opiate addiction and college students is one that is under increased scrutiny.
In 2016, 4,110 people under the age of 25 lost their lives to opiate addiction. This figure is double the amount of young people who died of opiate overdoses the previous decade. Virtually unheard of a few years ago, opiate addiction among college students has quickly become a concern for healthcare providers and lawmakers alike.
The Origins of Opiate Addiction among College Students
Traditionally, the focus on addiction among college students has been on alcohol abuse and binge drinking. While the subject of alcohol abuse on college campuses is certainly important, the growing number of students abusing opiates prescription drugs needs equal attention. As with most cases of opiate abuse, college students obtain prescription medications from their roommate or friend.
While many college students are prescribed opioid medications and use them properly under strict medical guidance, there are a growing number of college-aged students who use these medications for non-medical purposes. It is estimated that 1 in 4 college universities have an opioid and opiate abuse rate above 10%.
There are four main reasons why college-age students turn to opiates and opioids. First, they may be in a regular social environment which endorses an anything goes approach regarding drugs and alcohol. Secondly, they may face continual peer pressure to try opioids. Additionally, college-age students may lack a consistent social structure which is absent of productive and healthy activities. Lastly, those who are at an increased risk for opioid addiction are exposed to others who use and abuse these substances over long periods of time.
A Domino Effect
Like people in other age groups, college students that turn to opiate drugs often run the risk of developing an addiction to other substances. For many college students who use opioid drugs such as prescription painkillers more often that not will turn to opiate drugs such as heroin. This is due to the high cost of prescription opioids (especially obtaining these substances illegally on the black market) coupled with the low cost of heroin that comes from Mexico.
College students who move to heroin from prescription opioids face two major dangers. First and most obvious, heroin is an extremely powerful and addictive drug. Secondly, many dealers will cut heroin with other substances in order to increase profits. While dealers may “cut” heroin using a variety of substances, there has been a dramatic spike in the use of fentanyl as a cutting agent. Fentanyl is a potent painkiller which has caused a massive spike in overdose deaths across the country. According to statistics provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl procured illegally) passed prescription opioids as the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths.
Signs and Symptoms of Opiate Abuse in College Students
For college students, the following are the most common signs and symptoms that opiate dependence and abuse are occurring:
- For those using heroin or other opiates, users have the presence of needle marks on arms and legs from intravenous (injected) use
- The appearance of dilated pupils
- Major disturbances in sleep cycles. Those under the influence of opiates and opioids may sleep for days at a time
- Flushed, itchy skin
- Withdrawing from social activities
- Declined involvement in school work and decreasing academic performance
- Sudden and dramatic mood swings that may be out of character or unusual
- Impulsive actions and decision-making
- Engaging in risky activities, such as driving under the influence
- In the case of opioid abuse, users may engage in “doctor shopping”, or visiting multiple doctors in order to obtain more prescriptions
The Rise of College Sober Living and Recovery Programs
In order to help stem the tide of opiate abuse among college students, an increasing number of universities are embracing recovery programs and sober living. Over the past few years, college campuses nationwide are offering counseling, 12-step support and other recovery programs. These programs are specifically geared towards the unique needs of the college-aged population.
Additionally, college campuses offer sober housing options. This option is open to those students who have completed a treatment program or are currently in recovery. These living environments are set up to help recovering students stay confident and strong in their sobriety throughout their college years. Sober housing features four main components:
- Academic Services –In college sober housing, students receive help and support from specially-trained staff through the transition process from a drug treatment program back to school. These programs provide tutors that will provide help and support throughout the student’s stay in college.
- Recovery Program –Throughout a recovering student’s stay in sober housing, support staff helps students find sober entertainment and hobbies that are healthy and proactive. Additionally, these programs help students deal with peer pressure and how to handle social situations.
- Crisis Management –Drug and alcohol abuse often is a sign of deeper-seated issues. Sober living programs offer help and support for those who may be dealing with mental health issues or medical issues.
- Relapse Prevention – Living in a college sober environment allows recovering students to receive around the clock support for maintaining abstinence from drugs and alcohol. A strong relapse prevention plan includes the development of life and coping skills that help those in recovery make healthy choices in their day to day lives.
While sober living and prevention programs have been increasing across college campuses nationwide, it is estimated that only 5 percent of campuses have these programs in place. With that fact firmly in place, college students addicted to opiates and opioids have to find the appropriate professional help. Finding programs that fit a college student’s unique needs can be difficult, but there are a few factors that can steer them in the right direction.
The best opiate treatment facilities feature medical detox that use medications, nutritional therapy and other interventions to make the withdrawal process more tolerable. These facilities should also conduct comprehensive mental and medical evaluations that can pinpoint underlying issues that can impact recovery. Additionally, these facilities must offer a variety of treatment programs such as inpatient, intensive outpatient and day treatment options.
It is important that college students thoroughly research treatment options. It is highly recommended that parents also become involved in the search and take part in the treatment process. Creating an overall nurturing family environment helps young adults recover and strengthens their support network. The college years can be a time of great stress and obstacles, and opiate addiction can create huge obstacles. However, with the right help and support, the college years can be a time of great growth.