We’ve reached a point in the COVID-19 pandemic where things have begun to relax and return to normal. Despite the surge in new cases attributed to the Delta variant, the country seems to be moving forward with its course of loosening social distancing restrictions and other pandemic-time closures. Among these were American colleges and Universities that suspended on-campus classes, housing, and other activities. This Fall marks the reopening of those establishments that survived the economic impact of the virus. And with this, the return of students.
For many, this change marks a victory and something to look forward to. But for others, returning to campus means increased risk.
The obvious risk is the possibility of contracting COVID-19 with so many people gathering in large crowds and living together in close-quarters. But colleges mat not be returning to what anyone who has attended higher education pre-pandemic would consider “normal.” The pandemic has changed educational institutions in some very extreme ways, including many that are believed to stick around longer after COVID-19. The “college experience” will probably never be the same again.
But perhaps that’s a good thing. Especially since U.S. universities are notorious for issues like substance abuse.
Not only was 2020 the deadliest year in American history, but it was also the worst year on record for drug overdose deaths. More than 93,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2020, an almost 30% increase from the previous year. This figure is higher than any year during the opioid epidemic, or any other scourge of drug deaths we’ve ever faced. Yet, with the focus placed on the pandemic and the year’s political backdrop, many people are unaware that addiction has become and even worse problem than it already was for America.
This is important for college students because they represent a demographic that is extremely substance oriented. Most college students fall between ages 18 and 22. Comparing this age group with others, we see a trend of increased substance use. And alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances among college students.
According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 47.1 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 22 drank alcohol in the past month. Within this age group, 52.5 percent of full-time college students drank within the last month, compared to 44.0 percent of other persons of the same age.
This same survey showed that 29.6 percent of adults ages 18 to 22 reported binge drinking in the past month. Within this age group, 33.0 percent of full-time college students binge drank whereas 27.7 percent of other persons of the same age reported binge drinking in the past month.
Additionally, 7.0 percent of adults ages 18 to 22 reported heavy alcohol use. Among these, 8.2 percent of full-time college students drank heavily compared to 6.4 percent of other persons of the same age who reported heavy alcohol use in the past month.
As we can see, this group is more prone to substance abuse and could be more heavily impacted by the increased rates brought on by the pandemic. Not only has the stress that’s associated with Covid-19’s impact made it harder on those who already struggle with addiction, those who weren’t already using drug or alcohol may have started abusing them. And perhaps even worse, many who were in recovery before 2020 have relapse and need help.
With schools reopening, and so many people returning to campus, there’s more risk than just the coronavirus. After being pent up for so long, restricted to online classes and studying at home, many college students are hopeful they’ll get the college experience they missed last year. And for many, this includes partying. And partying in college often means substances.
Many universities are aware of the increased risks that come with the return to class this Fall. We need to be more aware than ever of the magnitude of substance misuse in America, particularly within our systems of higher education. Let’s look out for this year’s returning students and be vigilant in providing them with resources at a time when those have been scarce.
Michael Leach has spent most of his career as a health care professional specializing in Substance Use Disorder and addiction recovery. He is a regular contributor to the healthcare website Addicted.org and a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant