Schools and Universities

How universities and schools can help curb students’ battle with addiction

Our student years are often marked by a mix of explorative curiosity, personal growth and social challenges. Sadly, during these critical years, we are most vulnerable to the pressures of substance abuse. The majority of young people manage to resist these pressures, but a significant minority succumbs to the scourge of addiction. As institutions of learning and personal development, schools and universities bear the responsibility of recognising the signs of addiction and knowing how to intervene effectively and provide effective support for their students.

What causes addiction among students?

Addiction among students often arises from a complex interplay of different factors. As well as the general risk factors that increase the chances of addiction, there are various others that are unique to students and young people:

  • Recreational experimentation: Adolescence and young adulthood are characterised by an increased willingness to explore and experiment. Unfortunately, these experimental encounters with substances may escalate to uncontrolled use and eventual addiction.
  • Personal freedom: The transition from school to university often comes with newfound personal freedom and independence, especially for students moving out of their homes for the first time. This sudden absence of parental supervision and the thrill of autonomy can, unfortunately, open doors to excessive substance use, possibly spiralling into addiction.
  • Peer pressure: The social pressures of youth can be tremendous. The intense desire to be accepted and fit in can compel students to engage in activities, including substance use, which they would typically avoid. This urge to “fit in”, fueled by peer pressure, can lead to addictive behaviours and habits that may escalate into a serious addiction.
  • The need for stress relief: The academic environment can be fraught with stressors – from demanding coursework to the anxiety of establishing a career path or dealing with complex personal issues. This overwhelming pressure may push students towards substances as an escape mechanism, ultimately increasing the risk of addiction.

Signs of addiction in students

Addiction gives off a number of warning signs which can help loved ones and those close to you recognise there is a problem. Some of these are unique to students and can help schools and universities identify those who are struggling:

  • Absenteeism: Chronic unexplained absence from class or frequent late arrivals may be a sign of substance abuse. Schools and universities should monitor attendance patterns carefully and try to find out why students are missing classes.
  • A decline in academic performance: A sudden or gradual drop in grades, loss of focus or decreased engagement in class might signal that a student is wrestling with addiction.
  • Changes in behaviour: Mood swings, drastic changes in personality, physical energy levels, unexplained paranoia or anxiousness can all point towards substance use. This may not be easy to identify if teachers only see students one or two times a week, like at university, but it should be noticeable for school teachers.
  • Reduced participation in extracurricular activities: Withdrawal from hobbies, sports, clubs or social events is a classic sign of addiction. If a student who previously enjoyed or excelled in these stops taking part, it could suggest they are grappling with an addiction.
  • Changes in social groups: Students who suddenly start associating with a different peer group, especially one known for substance use, may be experimenting with or regularly using substances.
  • Physical changes: Observable physical signs, such as sudden weight loss or gain, bloodshot eyes, poor hygiene, unusual smells or frequent injuries, could indicate a substance abuse issue.
  • Emotional instability and mental health decline: Rapid emotional shifts, increased agitation, signs of depression, anxiety or other mental health issues could indicate a struggle with substance use. School counsellors and mental health professionals should be adept at recognising these signs during interactions with students.

The understanding and identification of these signs are the first steps in intervention. However, these could be signs of other issues, so it is very important that the appropriate person speaks to the student to find out exactly what is going on.

How to talk to students about addiction

Addressing addiction requires tact, compassion and understanding. It’s imperative to avoid punitive or judgemental approaches as they can deter students from seeking help. Instead, we recommend the following:

Express empathy and understanding…

When communicating with students struggling with addiction, it is crucial to demonstrate empathy and understanding. Instead of dismissing their struggles or reprimanding them, show genuine concern and communicate a willingness to support them throughout their recovery journey. This can go a long way in motivating students to seek help.

Reassure students of confidentiality…

Trust is paramount in these situations. While schools often include parents in the process (or may even be legally obliged to), universities must respect the legal adulthood of their students. Clear policies about what will be disclosed, to whom and when are essential.

Encourage professional help…

It is also crucial to educate struggling students about the value and role of professional help in the recovery process. Providing information about available resources, such as local rehab centres and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), can demystify the process of seeking professional treatment and help them take the first and most difficult step.

Tips for schools and universities to prevent addiction

As with every field of health, proactive strategies are always more effective than reactive ones when it comes to preventing addiction. Here are some effective tips for educating students about the dangers of addiction:

Encourage open conversations…

All schools and universities should develop a culture that encourages open and non-judgmental dialogues about addiction. Honest conversations can inspire students to recognise that they need help and seek assistance without feeling embarrassed or worried about how teachers or other staff will react.

Put on educational lectures…

Lectures and interactive seminars with professionals in addiction and recovery can be incredibly beneficial for students. They can provide insights into the risks and realities of substance abuse and addiction and teach students who are struggling about the help that is available.

Provide confidential helplines or messaging boards

Setting up confidential helplines or online platforms where students can share their concerns, ask questions or seek help anonymously can be a valuable resource as many people fear opening up about their addiction issues.

Develop inclusive substance use policies…

Zero-tolerance policies might not be the most effective way to handle addiction. Instead, a balanced policy that outlines the consequences of substance use but also assures students of support and help can foster a better response. This may not be possible for schools, but it is an avenue that all educational institutes should consider.

Set up support groups…

Facilitating connections with both on-campus and off-campus support groups can provide invaluable assistance to students. These groups can provide a safe space for sharing, learning and recovery and prevent students from becoming isolated by their addiction.

Assign counsellors and mental health support…

Access to trained counsellors and mental health professionals is crucial for anyone struggling with addiction. With personalised advice, support, and referrals to addiction treatment programmes, those who are struggling can get the help they need. For students with addiction, it’s especially important to make it as easy as possible to access this support. By removing barriers to treatment, we can ensure that students get the help they need as soon as possible.

Organise recovery-oriented activities…

Universities, in particular, can plan campus or union activities that promote healthy living, stress management and substance-free fun. This can include wellness workshops, yoga classes, group therapy or peer mentorship programmes.

Make sure faculty and staff are properly trained…

Regularly training faculty and staff to recognise the signs of substance abuse and addiction can help ensure speedy intervention. This is always important when it comes to addiction recovery and preventing potentially fatal consequences of substance abuse.

How UKAT can help

At UKAT, we are committed to helping schools and universities educate students on the dangers of substance abuse, identify those who are struggling with addiction and help them get the support they need. Our Addiction Awareness Education Programme provides free online seminars led by one of our certified addiction therapists and we can help you create an environment that supports not just academic success but also personal well-being. Get in touch with UKAT today to find out more.