Secret Student Addiction: Another Pandemic?

TW: addiction, drug use, alcohol, mental health.

*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the people involved.

Almost every student has some experience with alcohol and drug use. Whether this is first-hand fun or something they’ve witnessed from a friend, it’s not an uncommon conversation topic.  

It’s just such a normal part of being young. Regardless of opinions and debate, it happens – so it’s important to keep talking, to make sure people are having fun as safely as possible. Especially in times as unusual as the past year, when student mental health is a pandemic in itself, it’s more crucial than ever to look after one another. 

Mind’s June 2020 survey found that 73% of students felt their mental health had declined during lockdown. Another showed that the 16–24 age bracket reported the highest rates of loneliness – likely because of changes to school, university and social routine. 

There’s a danger that we need to be aware of – isolation, loneliness, and disruption can spiral into unhealthy coping mechanisms like drink and drugs, which are so readily available in the student environment. When they become a form of escapism, they stop being fun, and people start facing battles that can long outlive the duration of a degree. 

“I started my Master’s remotely. I didn’t meet any of my classmates because of lockdown restrictions,” Alex* explains. “When I’m alone at home in the evening times, I need to somehow disconnect myself. I drink a lot, but I drink a lot because of Covid.”  

Charlie agrees, saying that despite not being ‘a heavy drinker’, “there have been a few times where it’s been midday on a Thursday, for example, and the constant repetition of either studying or sleeping has gotten too much and I want to have a drink.”

When amongst the chaos of normal student life, it’s easy to overlook urges like this. Dependency is often not recognised as addiction at university, so it’s hard for young people to access the help that they need. They often don’t know where the line is – realistically, how can you be sure that you can live without it when you have no reason to stop?  

One way to tackle this is keeping an eye out for friends – awareness of their patterns can make you more alert to changes and behavioural red flags. Although first-year student Jess chooses not to drink herself, she spends a lot of time looking after others. One of her flatmates recently opened up to her about her reliance on alcohol. Despite not having the typical freshers experience, she admits the warning signs were “disguised by uni culture, for sure”.  

There are a number of signs Morgan says she looks for in friends – “are they drinking almost every night? How many drinks do you see them with? Are they starting to drink earlier and earlier? Look for common denominators, like maybe they only drink in certain ways with certain people.” She also urges people who do take drugs recreationally to “make sure that they’re getting everything from a reputable source” and if you can, buy a drug testing kit.  

Familiarising yourself with what help your university or local healthcare services provide is always a good idea – as is ensuring the people you’re with are trustworthy and have your best intentions at heart. Charities like FRANK provide helpful and honest advice, including advice for during the pandemic and support for afterwards, when the world starts opening up again.  

If something doesn’t feel right, or you think you might be struggling with addiction without realising, there is help available and, especially right now, you’re definitely not going through it alone.  

Image courtesy of Mikail Duran.

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