How College Students Can Cope With Isolation Without Substance Use

2 min read · 3 sections

For many of us, college life is synonymous with fall-time football, late-night cram sessions, a bustling campus, and endless opportunities for socializing, whether it was joining a club, rushing during Greek week, or meeting new dormmates. However, in 2020, college life is characterized by one-way sidewalks, routine temperature checks, face masks, and social distancing. This autumn, normal college life is almost unrecognizable, as campuses and college towns are hauntingly quiet and empty.

While the effects of COVID-19 have upended cultural norms for us all, the pandemic’s impact on young adults has been uniquely cruel. For high school seniors, cancelled senior proms and in-person graduations led directly into a summer of lockdown and uncertainty. For many, the prospect of attending college in the fall offered the hope of something new. However, after only two weeks (or two days) on campus, many first-year students were forced to move back home or off-campus.

According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of COVID-19 cases among young adults rose by 55% between early August and early September, coinciding with the start of the fall semester. While colleges reacted differently to the spike, many institutions dramatically reduced on-campus residences, sending many college freshmen back home to attend virtual classes. For this age group, the abnormal college experience of 2020 has been understandably disheartening.

Drinking Among Young Adults: Comorbidity Vs. College Life

In past years, the balancing act of socializing and school, combined with a newly found independence, has been credited for higher rates of substance use on college campuses. According to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2018, 54.9% of college students (ages 18–22) drank alcohol more regularly than the 44.6% of non-college individuals. This higher rate of drinking can be attributed to many things, but the social aspect of college is certainly one contributor.

However, an arguably more consequential link to higher rates of drinking – for everyone – is mental illness, and unfortunately, according to a June study by the CDC, 62.9% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression – the highest rate of any age group. In the current climate, the mental health effects of COVID-19 may be more damaging to young adults than the drinking culture of college life.

The relationship between co-occurring mental health disorders and alcohol is both common and complex. Although self-medicating may temporarily alleviate worry and stress, drinking excessively also exacerbates the symptoms of mental illness. While drinking on college campuses may not be as prevalent this year, due to social distancing, it’s important to remember how isolation, depression, and anxiety also contribute to substance abuse, especially considering the vulnerability of this age group.

Finding Connection in a Time of Isolation

Fortunately, this October offers young adults struggling with mental health and/or substance use opportunities to connect with others. October 10th is World Mental Health Day. Created by the World Health Organization (WHO), this year’s day of observance offers an opportunity for us to recognize the impact that COVID-19 has had globally and how we, as a society and individually, can better cope. For the first time, World Mental Health Day is also hosting an event – the Big Event for Mental Health.

The event will feature world leaders, mental health experts, and celebrity advocates, including Cynthia Germanotta (with her daughter Lady Gaga) who serves as the President of Born This Way Foundation, as well as Talinda Bennington, the widow of Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington, who is a founding partner of 320 Changes Direction. The Big Event for Mental Health can be streamed live through WHO’s various social media channels, including Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube.

Specific to college students, the third week of October is also National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Week. Typically held at this time of year – due to football games, homecoming celebrations, and Halloween – this year’s National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Week is markedly different. However, the rationale behind the week stays the same. Excessive drinking among college students can be detrimental to their physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as their academic success.

Healthy Coping Strategies for College Students

Along with these October opportunities to connect with others, there’s also a number of ways college students can cope during these abnormal times:

  • Plan a Routine: Try to sleep, eat, and exercise on a schedule. Planning effectively is beneficial in all stages of adult life, especially during college. When college life begins to normalize, you’ll appreciate newly honed time management skills.
  • Explore College Opportunities: Off campus doesn’t mean out of college. Explore the extracurricular clubs that most universities offer. Whether it’s a drama club or an environmental group, reach out to organizers and express your interest.
  • Stay Social: The idea of “Alone Together” is important. Whether it’s video chatting with your week-long dormmate or life-long friends, stay connected with friends and family.
  • Stay Excited: Although college life may not be what you – or anyone – imagined in 2020, it’s vital to stay optimistic. Although it’s easier said than done, optimism will keep you looking forward to a future that’s beyond present disappointments.

However you choose to maintain your mental health, remember that drinking is not a healthy coping mechanism. There are alternatives to alcohol that can foster connections and a healthy lifestyle.

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