Disclaimer: This story contains anonymous sources.USF Encounter only uses anonymous sources when it feels it is necessary to protect the identity, safety or livelihood of a source.
“Want a hit?”
This casual exchange, a shared experience for many, could be part of an escalating issue that demands our immediate attention: substance abuse.
College often becomes the perfect breeding ground for experimentation. Combine the newfound freedom, readily accessible substances and the unending balancing act of performance, productivity and peer relations, and it is a cocktail for risky behavior, where the pervasive handof influence reaches even the most straight-edged students.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a Friday night out but when students turn to substance use for relief,to fit in or to simply survive the daily grindof college life, where does the line between the college experience and the beginning ofa serious addiction begin to blur?
This transition often begins innocently, as wasthe case for one student at USF, who began vaping their freshman year of high school dueto peer pressure, unaware of the risks of long-term addiction.
“It makes me feel better when I’m anxiousor stressed, same as alcohol. I’m so busy with work, my friendships and homework, there is really no space to be happy or do things I enjoy. College keeps me so busy so when I can go home and finally have a break, I spend it not being sober and forgetting the stress,” they said.
This narrative mirrors the experience of countless others navigating the stressors of mental health and college life.
According to surveys from the National Institute on Drug Use and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse, roughly 40% of college students regularly misuse alcohol or illegal drugs, and the use of nicotine and marijuana among college students has almost tripled, with college students using substances at higher rates than those of the same age group not enrolled in college.
Sangita Bogati, a counselor at USF, says that the line between fun and obligation is crossed when we start feeling like we need it.
“If the first thing they do is wake up and smoke, if you need it to function, [and] if you drink to get over the hangover, then you drink again… you never get out of the cycle.”
She continues, stating that the reasoning behind substance use isn’t “black and white," and that many turn to it looking for peace or relief, because of peer pressure, not to mention the unique stressors of college life.
“Some of my students say that they have some underlying issues, trauma, grief; whatever it is. They turn to substances because it made them feel good. All the hesitations and insecurities were gone. It's the same with marijuana. It makes them feel a little different; a little bolder.”
“When you have anxiety or are in a physical place of discomfort, it can feel like a relief.”
Bogati points out that the consequences of substance use go well beyond the short term.
“It all goes hand-in-hand. Substance use long term leads to a lot of mental health issues, but they turnto substances because of their mental health.”
Bogati believes, saying peer influence playsa huge role.
“Our peers are our biggest influence,” shesaid. “Whatever you want to call it, a pressureor fitting in.”
She also says it can be part of the college experience, but only in moderation.
“They end up trying it and then never doing it again. You end up experimenting in a way but then you never do it again. It's a learning experience. If you take it as a developmental mind stone, yes, [it can be part of the experience].”
Bogati sees a common issue with a lot of the students she talks to, and it has grown to be quite concerning to her.
“There is a disconnect between them and their coping skills. There needs to be more than one or two coping skills that aren’t drinking or smoking. The coping skills need to be diversified. I go to work, I have stress, but I also have friends,” Bogati said. “If you are relying on a substance to cope, you are taking away everything else you can cope with. If alcohol or marijuana are your coping skills, the other things aren’t going to cut it.”
How do you fight back against a culture where passing the bottle is an ice breaker and comparing Posh Max flavors is a trend? Both research and perspective show that it starts with a conversation, but continues habitually.
“I didn’t want to do it but the person I was dating was doing it and I wanted to be liked,” the USF student said. “There was the first time I smoked, drank and vaped. I did all those things so I would be liked by them and everyone else.”
They tell a cautionary tale about the road they’ve gone down.
“Don’t start. Like seriously. It’s so dumb,” they said.
“I’m ashamed of it. [When] you can’t cope by yourself and you need drugs to do it, it’s almost pathetic.”
It’s time to replace joint passing and flavor comparisons with open conversations about mental health challenges, stressors and the long-term consequences of substance abuse. When we ignore the issue, we perpetuate a cycle that leaves countless students struggling. Only when we talk about it can we change the culture.
“I guess, like, choosing to start was pathetic, because I wanted to fit in or have my high school significant other like me. I would tell them about my story and how I started. It's possible to quit, you just have to want it.”
If you, a close friend or someone you know is struggling, USF offers counseling in Motherhouse room C310 Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. To make an appointment call 800-236-3231 or email email@example.com.