substance abuse

According to a University of Michigan study, 39 percent of students have used marijuana in the past year. The drug can be used to cope with anxiety, stress and depression. 

Before Charles Miller got into the car he quickly popped a small tab of 25i — fake acid. It seemed that during the first eight holes of golf everything would be normal, but it wasn’t until after the ninth hole that yardsticks started moving out of nowhere and the fairway turned into a waving ocean. This was an uncomfortable high for Miller that led him to experience severe anxiety for months after, and he coped by drinking alcohol and popping Xanax for a year of his college life.

“I didn’t know if I was going to make it,” Miller, using a pseudonym to protect his identity, said.

The use of alcohol and illicit drugs is more common among young adults than any other age group, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Illicit drugs originally focused on the use of marijuana among college students, but has recently incorporated the use and misuse of prescription, over-the-counter drugs and harder drugs such as LSD. The administration found that 1 in 17 full-time college students aged 18-22 met the criteria for a substance use disorder in 2015.

The use of substances also has a direct relation to one’s mental health. SAMHSA reported in 2015 that “37 percent of students reported feeling so depressed within the last 12 months that it was difficult to function, and 21 percent felt overwhelming anxiety.” It goes on to say that adults 18 and older with mental health issues in the past year were more likely to use illicit drugs or alcohol in the past month than other adults.

 

Alcohol

 

The most worrisome category of substance use among college students is alcohol.

In 2016, the National Institute on Drug Abuse surveyed college campuses to find that about 40 percent of students “have been drunk in the past month” and about 32 percent took part in binge drinking within the past two weeks. On top of this, just by googling “Virginia party schools,” JMU is marked as the second top party school by Niche.

Miller noticed himself change drastically during the end of his sophomore year. He never had any anxiety problems previously. He describes the effects of his bad trip as a “direct shaking of my soul.”

During the day Miller would still feel as though he were tripping. His anxiety would spike because he knew he was only hungover, but still couldn’t shake off that feeling of worry. Two weeks after his trip Miller experienced his first anxiety attack. This led him to find a friend that sold Xanax and he took those pills during the day.

At night, when Miller thought is was most appropriate, he'd drink. He'd then continue to drink until he could no longer notice the constant anxiety he was feeling. Miller recognized that his new behaviors were a direct response to his anxiety.

“When you drink and take all that [stuff] it just hides it and puts it back on a backburner for even longer,” Miller said.

Miller often found himself awake and unable to rest his mind late in the evening. Anxiety was what was causing him to lose sleep and in reaction he began to run sprints. At 3 a.m. one could see a drunk Miller sprinting up and down his street for almost three hours in order to exhaust himself.

“I just had to keep doing that,” Miller said. “And then I was just like, ‘I can’t take this ... anymore.’”

Miller tried to quit drinking solely on his own with only his roommates knowing how bad his addictions were. This eventually led him to Sentara RMH Medical Center because he began to experience alcohol withdrawal.

“It kind of felt good being in the hospital,” Miller said. 

In response to Miller’s condition, the hospital urged him to reach out to medical professionals in the Harrisonburg area. He refused and wanted to achieve sobriety through his own strength. He could see that he wasn’t the only one going through this and that people were there to help him.

If Miller were to have chosen to be prescribed medication for his anxiety, he may have had an issue with being prescribed the correct drug. The use of alcohol and Xanax could've been the cause of Miller’s worsening mental health.

According to Colleen Tennyson, a psychiatrist for the counseling center, alcohol and other drugs can minimize the effects of a prescribed drug to treat a mental health concern. In turn, they can also enhance certain risks that come with taking medication.

An example of this is mixing alcohol and a sedative. Too much of each can lead one to a heavy sedation, coma and even death.

Miller relapsed a few times while fighting his addictions and has since continued to stay sober. The week he turned 21, Miller only had three drinks.

“After having gone through that, I have a much better respect for  who I am and life,” Miller said.

Miller is one of many students who might choose to treat their mental health with alcohol. SAMHSA reported that 1 in 8 full-time college students were heavy drinkers in 2015. Like Miller’s addictions, many other students might choose to use marijuana. A majority of these students might not describe themselves as addicted to it, but instead severely dependent on the drug.

 

Marijuana

 

The daily use of marijuana has hit an all time high since the ’80s — almost five percent of students in 2016, according to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study. Thirty-nine percent of all students have used the drug at least once in the past year.

Lucy Brown, using a pseudonym to protect her identity, used weed to cope with the stresses of college life. She felt so overwhelmed and stressed out that an evening with a blunt was the perfect ending to her busy days.

These are not smokers who feel anxious and paranoid when high — which can be caused from the marijuana — but are people that use this drug to help them relax and feel less stressed.

“At the end of a long day you just want to relax,” Brown said. “Some people will go have a beer or something to relax. My thing is I just roll a blunt.”

Often times Brown felt that she could do better on her projects and homework, but just didn’t have the energy to. She’s a graphic design major, which requires her to almost instantly be able to turn on her creativity and create a perfect piece for her class. These expectations of her major were the biggest sources of her stress.

“For the most part it’s been a stress release,” Brown said.

In 2015, almost 22 percent of college students used marijuana more than any other illicit drug, according to SAMHSA. Tennyson believes that mainstream marijuana has become more potent now, which can be credited to higher THC levels in weed. 

“Marijuana use can impair cognitive functions, particularly in people who have not achieved full brain development, which occurs in the mid-20s,” Tennyson said in an email.

Although weed’s popularity on college campuses has increased, along with perspectives looking to legalize the drug, it still has proven in past studies to have serious negative effects on the young mind.

“I think the medical and scientific studies showing concern are not always considered,” Tennyson said.

Annie Johnson, using a pseudonym to protect her identity, is a daily smoker and has been for three years now. She smokes on average about a quarter of an ounce of weed a week, and has begun to buy it in high quantities to get it cheaper, considering her tolerance increases every time.

“I smoke every single day so I’m really relaxed all the time,” Johnson said. “Then when things happen while I’m not high, being upset is more upsetting.”

Johnson relies on weed to also “numb out” the stomach pain she gets when she feels anxious. She's been diagnosed with situational anxiety, but also feels she might have other types of anxiety and depression.

She originally planned to take this semester off, her first of her senior year, but has now had to drop out for financial reasons. In her junior year, Johnson found that she had no energy to do anything while sober. Going to class and work were two of many things that she became reliant on marijuana to even think about doing.

“That’s when I really started to come to terms with the fact that I was addicted to it or had a dependency on it,” Johnson said. “I’ll wake up the next morning and the first thing my, like, that my body, my brain tells me to do is smoke.”

Weed is known to influence one’s appetite and ability to fall asleep at night. Johnson and Brown both found themselves dependent on it to eat or sleep well.

Although Johnson still continues to smoke every day, she tries to keep it from interrupting her busy days. She has devoted an hour or so a day to smoking, which usually occurs in the evening after she's done what she’s needed to do that day.

Johnson and Brown represent the many students that have come to rely on marijuana to take a break from the world around them, and even as a way of separating one’s energy and emotional investment from a situation by using the drug to numb themselves. But as Miller has shown, other drugs, rather than weed, have become normalized while in college to use to cope with one’s mental health. Prescription drugs, cocaine and psychedelic drugs continue to find a home on campuses across the country.

 

Psychedelics

 

Miller wasn’t the only student to have used LSD, 25i or magic mushrooms during his college career. Brown microdosed on LSD her entire junior year to gain similar effects of Adderall. This practice has gained popularity among non-Adderall users, but has yet to be properly studied.

Microdosing is ingesting about a tenth of a regular dosage of a hallucinogenic drug that has found to help people deal with anxiety and stress by giving them the energy to take on busy days. Since there are no official studies and hallucinogens are illegal drugs, microdosing can be dangerous.

Brown first tried microdosing with mushrooms, but decided that LSD gave her the effect she was looking for. It gave her the energy and focus she needed to get school work done.

“That would really just get my brain going at a higher rate,” Brown said.

She would take a fifth or a seventh of a single tab of LSD every three days. All of this was done after her own research and self-interest in trying to see if microdosing could help her. Microdosing became a way for Brown to cope with the expectations she felt she had to reach in classes but didn’t feel like she had the capability to while sober or just high off marijuana.

“I feel like that’s a slippery slope to feeling dependent on it,” Brown said. She claimed that she never became fully dependent on LSD and was able to quit on her own. Brown  also recognized that the frequency she was taking LSD could potentially lead her to develop an addiction.

In terms of school-related stress, Tennyson said in an email, “We all experience emotions and might range between good to bad. But even times of feeling overwhelmed or stressed might be appropriate reactions to a stressful situation.”

Not all stressful situations and reactions need an outside source of relief. This can include the common stresses one might feel from class expectations, overbearing parents and the need to feel included in social situations.

“Alcohol or other abuse will have the same effect as a stressor on the brain,” Tennyson said.  “For others, alcohol or other drugs will actually make the person more sensitive to stress or mental health issues.”

Brown decided that after her junior year, microdosing wasn’t giving her the help she originally thought it would. There were times she claimed it did help, but sitting in class while microdosing was hard. She would have to put her head down and couldn’t participate in class if she thought she was tripping too hard in the middle of the day.

“It got to a point where I’m like, ‘Why am I taking this? Why am I doing this?” Brown said.

Today, Brown no longer microdoses and is trying to stop smoking marijuana. Every now and then she gives in to the temptation of smoking, but isn’t nearly the smoker she used to be.

“It’s almost better to just smoke. Only smoke a little bit and move on,” Brown said. “And then try to go longer next time.”

Maddelynne Parker is a senior media arts and design major. Contact Maddelynne at parkermn@dukes.jmu.edu.