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Substance Abuse

Drug addiction is commonly understood as a biopsychosocial disease, meaning that biological, psychological, and social (behavioral/environmental) factors all contribute to the disorder. There are two forms of addiction:

  • Physical dependence: drug taken long enough that the body develops tolerance for the drug, thereby increasing craving
  • Psychological addiction: preoccupation with obtaining and using the drug despite the consequences

College students are at increased risk for using and abusing drugs.

Which illegal drugs are college students using?


  • Composed of dried leaves of the cannabis plant
  • Contains THC, a chemical that alters perception
  • Short-term effects: feelings of relaxation, paranoia, euphoria, slowed thinking and reaction time, confusion, impaired balance and coordination
  • Long-term effects: memory loss, shortened attention span, colds, breathing problems, increased heart rate, apathy, weight gain, gynecomastia (males developing breasts), and smoking related cancers


  • White powder stimulant extracted from coca plant leaves
  • Short-term effects: energy bursts, increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate; increased body temperature, mental “clearness” while high, and fatigue and insomnia after the high
  • Long-term effects: addiction, paranoia, violent behavior, aggression, depression, loss of interest in food or sex, destruction of nasal passages (if snorted), lung damaged (if smoked), stroke, heart attack, and death

MDMA (Molly) or Ecstasy

  • Manufactured drug that acts as both a stimulant and a hallucinogen
  • Short-term effects: increased tactile sensitivity, empathic feelings, increased physical energy, paranoia, hallucinations, nausea, chills, dehydration, sweating, teeth clenching, muscle cramping, increased heart rate, blood pressure and blurred vision
  • Long-term effects: damage to dopamine- and serotonin-releasing neurons, impaired memory and learning, hyperthermia, cardiac toxicity, renal failure, muscle breakdown, liver toxicity, depression and/or other mental health conditions, and death


  • Manufactured substance that contains male sex hormones
  • Short-term effects: increases muscle mass, strength and endurance, acne, water retention, high blood pressure, impaired judgment due to feelings of being invincible, mood swings, and other negative behavioral effects.
  • Long-term effects: hypertension, high cholesterol, stunted growth, liver tumors and cancers, and heart damage. For males, side effects may include shrinking of the testicles and breast development. For females, side effects may include growth of facial hair, menstrual changes, and deepened voice.

Prescription drugs and abuse

Prescription drugs are defined as drugs prescribed by a doctor or health care provider. All drugs alter body chemistry. Recommended dosages have been researched and tested to treat specific symptoms or illnesses. Use is considered “abuse” when a prescription drug is used for something other than its intended purpose, is taken in excessive dosages, or is used by someone for whom it was not prescribed.

Abuse of prescription drugs has become increasingly prevalent among college students. Many students believe that prescribed medications are safe and legal. However, when taken by someone other than the person for whom they are prescribed, or when taken in excess, these drugs can pose serious dangers.

  • Opioids: opioids such as Vicodin, Oxycontin and codeine are usually prescribed to treat pain. Misuse of these drugs can depress breathing and cause physical dependence.
  • Depressants: Central nervous system (CNS) depressants—also called sedatives or tranquilizers—such as Valium, Xanax, Ambien and Lunesta are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. These drugs can be addictive if misused, and can slow heart rate and respiration, which can be fatal.
  • Stimulants: CNS stimulants such as Ritalin, Concerta, and Adderall are prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Taking high doses of stimulants can cause dangerous body temperatures and irregular heart rates, and can sometimes cause hostility or paranoia.

Stimulants and “study drugs”

Prescription stimulants are indicated for many illnesses, including Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This is a common medical illness with symptoms that may negatively impact multiple areas in students’ lives. Medications such as Adderall and Ritalin influence particular neurochemicals. The treatment should reduce the many symptoms of ADHD, including disorganization, impulsivity, restlessness, and inattention.

Some students who have not been prescribed stimulants choose to buy or take someone else’s medicine because they believe that taking “study drugs” can improve their study behavior and in turn improve their grades. These students may not be aware that the drugs do not perform for them in the way they do for a person with a diagnosis. There are serious dangers associated withe abusing prescription stimulants:

  • Short-term: increased or irregular heart beat and respiratory rate, elevated blood pressure, nervousness, sleep difficulty, appetite loss, blurred vision, and risk of overdose
  • Contraindications: adverse effect on some pre-existing medical conditions including heart conditions and/or adverse interactions with other drugs
  • Other potential risks: sudden death, abuse potential, worsening mental illness, decreased growth and weight loss, and danger to fetus or breastfeeding infants

Learn about prescription drug abuse

You can find more information on commonly abused prescription drugs, including adverse effects, the symptoms associated with withdrawal, and treatments for addiction at the National Institute on Drug Abuse

Treatment for drug abuse

Treatment for addiction may include medication, behavior therapy, social services, or rehabilitation services. The type or combination of treatments—individual counseling, group counseling, or participation in an intensive rehabilitation program (inpatient or outpatient)—is usually determined by the severity of the drug use and the availability of resources in the area.

More drug abuse help

  • Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center has a 24-hour hotline at 314-935-5099. If you wish to speak with someone in person, their office is in the basement of Gregg Hall, 10p.m. - 1a.m. nightly.
  • Screening for Mental Health has information on self-evaluation for drinking issues, as well as other mental health resources