Alcohol Use Disorder in College Students: How to Read the Signs

Alcohol Use Disorder in College Student
September 2, 2019
|   Updated:
October 26, 2023

College is the quintessential springboard from the awkward and insecure phases of adolescence into the new, uncharted territories of young adulthood. It’s often the cornerstone of new friendships, long nights spent studying, and decorating your first apartment.

And, of course, college isn’t without its dark underside. For many people, alcohol is an essential part of college—as synonymous with their school as football teams and biology classes. It’s a social lubricant flowing throughout parties.

And with a staggering 38% of college students reporting binge drinking in the past month, the alcohol phenomenon isn’t without serious risks. But how do we distinguish the fine line between partying and alcohol use disorder? In other words, how can we tell when someone is enjoying the nuances of college life from when someone is profoundly struggling?

The Dangers of Alcohol on College Campuses

Experts and worried parents alike share the same concerns about the rampant alcohol prevalence on college campuses. For one, alcohol consumption isn’t legal in America until age 21. Therefore, many students are breaking the law by drinking. Unfortunately, law enforcement and college officials rarely address and reinforce consequences on this behavior. As a result, the drinking continues to persist.

Research on brain chemistry shows that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until around age 25. At that point, most college students have graduated and begun their careers. Unfortunately, heavy drinking in college can cause both short-term and long-term damage with regards to memory problems, loss of attention span, cognitive difficulties, and other rational, decision-making skills.

Understanding the Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) affects over 15 million adults in the United States. 88,000 people die from alcohol-related deaths every single year, which makes alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in America.

These statistics are undoubtedly harrowing. Alcohol is both legal and socially acceptable. From bars and restaurants to sporting events and even amusement parks, alcohol is served in all kinds of establishments. We are bombarded with compelling messages about buying and consuming alcohol everywhere we turn. It’s no surprise that so many people fall into the slippery slope of problematic drinking.

AUD lies on a continuum. That means that there are both mild and severe cases. Most experts agree that alcohol use, when left untreated, often progresses. That means that, even if someone is “functioning” now, there is a high risk for that person to experience emotional, physical, or other consequences related to drinking.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM V), the symptoms of AUD include:

  • Frequently drinking more alcohol than intended
  • Making numerous, unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop drinking
  • Experiencing tolerance to alcohol (needing to drink more to achieve the desired effects)
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms once abstaining from alcohol
  • Spending significant amounts of time drinking or recovering from alcohol-related effects
  • Continuing to drink despite interferences and consequences with work or school
  • Facing legal issues due to drinking
  • Isolating from loved ones or usual interests to drink
  • Drinking in physically hazardous situations (i.e., while driving or using machinery)
  • Continuing to drink despite a decline in overall mental or physical health

Not everyone experiences all of these symptoms. As mentioned, alcohol use tends to progress. However, many people begin their spirals by experiencing just one or two of these issues.

Unfortunately, because addiction can start slowly, the signs may be easy to miss or even rationalize. Among college students, where it may seem like everyone is partying, it can be challenging to discern who are facing serious consequences as a result.

Subtle Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder In College Students

AUD can be shameful and isolating. You may not know if someone you love is struggling. That’s because people often take great lengths to conceal their struggle. They don’t want others to worry, judge, or even know about what’s going on. They may know about their condition, but they feel embarrassed and guilty about it.

There are other symptoms to consider when looking at college students and their drinking habits. These symptoms include:

  • Making excessive comments about wanting or needing to drink
  • Planning most or all social outings/gatherings around alcohol consumption
  • Making jokes about being an alcoholic
  • Offering or simply finishing others’ drinks before leaving the bar or restaurant
  • Drinking at times when others are not (i.e., bringing a flask to the classroom, pregaming before an event alone)
  • Talking about cutting back or quitting alcohol (without any evidence supporting their claims)
  • Frequently “making a scene” out of themselves when under the influence

Although drinking may seem like a staple across college campuses, people struggling with AUD do not have the same limits as other students. They can’t just “stop” when they want to stop. As a result, they may try to justify or intellectualize their drinking if others confront them.

Helping A College Student with Alcohol Use Disorder

If you suspect that someone you love is struggling with AUD, you may feel helpless, angry, confused, and ashamed. You may not know how to intervene or support your loved one. If you are also a college student, you may wonder if you’re overreacting about a friend’s condition. These are all reasonable reactions.

Remember that you don’t need to be an expert in addiction to provide support. You don’t need to “prove” that you know whether he or she has a quantifiable diagnosis. Really, all you need is the willingness to be honest and forthcoming in a loving way.

The first step in intervening entails education. You now know the signs and symptoms of AUD. From there, you might be able to draw realistic conclusions about your loved one’s behavior.

AUD is a chronic disease that requires monitoring and management. It isn’t an issue of willpower or desire. The more you can educate yourself on the disease model, the more equipped you will be to understand what your loved may be experiencing. Likewise, familiarizing yourself with treatment options including remote alcohol monitoring can also be beneficial in helping you understand what to realistically expect from a recovery plan.

You may also want to consider talking to your loved one. Unfortunately, many people steer away from this strategy. They hope that the condition will improve “on its own.” They don’t want to cause tension or create problems within the relationship.

Although these intentions may seem altruistic, you don’t want to enable someone’s alcohol consumption inadvertently. Enabling only tends to encourage unwanted behavior; it also makes it difficult to set and implement healthy boundaries in your relationship.

Successful conversations are neutral and objective. Don’t confront the individual when he or she is under the influence (or hungover). When talking, consider describing the behavioral or physical changes you have noticed. Share your concerns and how the drinking has impacted you. Discuss the boundaries or guidelines that you intend to execute moving forward.

These conversations, while difficult, are not meant to be punitive or shaming. Instead, they raise awareness to your loved one. They can also support him or her in understanding the ramifications of such alcohol consumption.

Closing Thoughts

Alcohol Use Disorder remains an ongoing problem across the country. America’s youth remain particularly susceptible. However, the more we can understand the impact on college students, the more we can help people from all walks of life.

About the Author

Nicole Arzt is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in providing psychotherapy to individuals, families, and groups struggling with substance use disorders and psychiatric illnesses. She received her master’s of science degree from California State University, Long Beach in 2014. She has extensive experience working in a variety of dual-diagnosis treatment centers, providing services for all levels of care from detoxification to long-term outpatient therapy.

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