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How to Recognize and Address Substance Misuse on Campus

Workplace Safety

How to Recognize and Address Substance Misuse on Campus

Substance misuse is a growing concern on college campuses, with many students turning to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the stress and pressures of college life. In this article, we’ll explore the signs of substance misuse, the stigma surrounding substance use, and resources available for addressing substance use disorder on campus. Whether you’re an administrator seeking to support your students or employees, this article will provide valuable insights and information to help you recognize and address substance misuse on campus.

What is Substance Use and What Are the Stigmas?

Let's start out by defining "substance." A substance is something that can produce impairing or harmful effects when taken into the body, such as through eating or inhaling. When talking about substance use and misuse, we're usually talking about psychoactive substances, or substances that impact one's perception, as well as physical and mental functioning — like alcohol or caffeine. Substance use in and of itself isn’t bad, and in fact, can have positive social, psychological, and physical effects.

In addition, the term “substance use or misuse” is more appropriate than the traditional “substance abuse” term, because it better reflects the complex nature of substance use and its potential for both positive and negative outcomes. Substance use can be beneficial, such as when it is used to treat medical conditions, or it can be harmful, such as when it is used recreationally or in excess. The term “substance abuse” only implies negative outcomes, which can stigmatize people who use substances, and do not allow for a nuanced understanding of the impacts of substance use.

Because there is so much stigma associated with substance use, it’s important to learn how to use neutral, nonjudgmental language when talking about substance use and substance use disorder, no matter what a college’s policies or code of conduct might read. For example, doctors used to think of addiction to a substance as a moral failing, where someone chooses to continue using a substance despite its harmful effects. But as psychologists and neuroscientists began to better understand how substances affect the brain and our mental health, they began to take a different view, known as the disease model of substance use disorder.

Signs of Substance Misuse

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that over half of college students aged 18-33, over half (54.8%) drank alcohol in the past month, while over a third (35.3%) engaged in binge drinking. While drinking in college is not an automatic cause for concern, the survey also found that about 9% of full-time college students met the criteria for alcohol use disorder — that’s about one in every ten students.

Some of the signs of substance misuse can include regularly missing class or falling asleep in class, difficulty keeping appointments and meeting deadlines, or with focus and memory. Someone with a substance use disorder may experience alternate periods of high productivity and low productivity and could require more and more time or effort to complete regular tasks. They may also find new or increasing problems communicating with classmates or shrugging off responsibility for errors or mistakes.

Outside of the classroom, a young adults with substance use disorder may start caring less and less about personal appearance and hygiene, and there may also be regular signs of hangovers, such as exhaustion or hyperactivity, and dilated pupils. They may also become isolated from their friends or professors, withdrawing from their usual campus or community activities.

Resources for Addressing Substance Misuse

Effective treatment for substance use disorder uses a variety of strategies to support the client biologically, psychologically, and socially as they recover. One set of such strategies is called harm reduction. Harm reduction recognizes the complexity of SUD and recognizes that people with SUD are deserving of high-quality medical care. Its goal is to minimize the negative consequences of substance use while increasing people's access to the care they need to improve their physical, mental, and social well-being. Harm reduction essentially "meets people where they are" in their substance use and works with people without judgment or coercion, and without requiring them to quit using substances.

On college campuses, students, faculty, and staff can benefit from the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, that was passed in 1986 and amended in 1989. This legislation requires educational institutions receiving federal funding to create a program to prevent the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit substances and alcohol by students and employees, which includes providing a description of health risks associated with substance use and a description of treatment options available to faculty, staff, and students.

Students, as well as faculty and staff members, should be encouraged to speak with a college counselor about entering treatment, and they should be aware of the reasonable accommodations available in the classroom and the workplace for those undergoing treatment for a Substance Use Disorder. These accommodations, afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act, may include extra time to turn in assignments, flexible work or class hours, allowing employees to work remotely or students to attend class remotely, and more.

Prevention Education

If you are a college administrator seeking out prevention education for your students and/or faculty, look no further than EasyLlama’s Drug and Alcohol Awareness On Campus course. We offer two editions of this training, one specifically for students, and the other for faculty and staff members, which addresses support for Substance Use Disorders in both students and coworkers. And for those not on a college campus, we also provide a course called Drugs And Alcohol In The Workplace, which provides a comprehensive overview of substance use and misuse, including the legal responsibilities and protections regarding substance use and employment.

Ready to take the next step to prevent substance misuse for your students or employees? Access your free course preview today to learn more about the interactive quizzes and real-life scenarios that make EasyLlama the best workplace training solution for improving knowledge retention and campus culture.

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