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Drug abuse: the quiet contributor to our University's mental health crisis

The University of Bristol is a breeding ground for mental health issues. After spending a year and a half here, Alex Sacks has found that alongside the social and academic pressures, drug abuse seems to be a serious contributor to mental health problems, but one that is considerably less addressed.

By Alex Sacks, 2nd year History

After spending a year and a half here, Alex Sacks has found that alongside the social and academic pressures, drug abuse seems to be a serious contributor to mental health problems, but one that is considerably less addressed.

TW: This article contains sensitive information about drugs and drug abuse.

Drug abuse can be defined as the habitual use of drugs; someone who abuses drugs at University typically does a range of substances four or more days of the week, and at least once or twice a week very heavily. A drug-fueled lifestyle can quickly put someone’s life into a downward spiral. Drug abuse is a serious problem at UoB and many other universities, but one that is blatantly ignored, despite the mental health problems that it can cause. Universities can help solve the issue by accepting the existence of illegal drug use, and then be ready to provide support and education for the sake of our students’ mental health across the nation.

Why do students do drugs at university?

Both the availability of time and the accessibility of drugs at university has created an environment that has cultivated substance abuse. Bristol is naturally a drug-orientated city, and getting drugs is easier than getting a takeaway. Students have extensive amounts of free time, with only about five hours-worth of work a week (at least in first year) and if you want to you can do even less. Moreover, halls of residence are perfect for doing drugs; there are a mix of newly inducted and impressionable freshers who are open to the idea of toying with substances. These substances are normalized by students to the degree that doing class A and B drugs weekly is considered ordinary. Hence, students find themselves in the perfect environment for drug abuse.

In combination with this, the unique challenges that students face at university push many to quickly resort to substance abuse as a way of dealing with their problems. Students with a passion for specific extracurricular activities, such as cooking, do not receive regular acknowledgment of achievement, as an academically driven student may receive a grade for their work. This leads to a significant proportion of students feeling undervalued and lacking in confidence. Furthermore, the pressure of exams can lead to drug abuse; one third of students who used drugs said they had done so to deal with stress. Finally, students often feel vulnerable at university, as many struggle to adjust to the distance from both friends and family. A recent study conducted by the National Union of Students proved that mental health issues is a prominent explanatory factor for drug use.

According to data, UoB is only the 21st highest drug taking university and so these problems plague other universities across the country as well, such as Sussex, Leeds and Manchester.

Image / Unsplash: Danny Howe

The science of drug abuse

Drugs abuse can seriously affect the brain; it can alter the natural brain functions, which can, in turn, lead to mental health problems:
Drug abuse can alter the brain stem, cerebral cortex and limbic system. For example:

  • Cocaine can reduce activity levels of neurons, making it difficult to feel pleasure.
  • MDMA depletes serotonin. This can lead to depression, anxiety and weakened cognitive functions.

As a person takes drugs on a more regular basis, their tolerance increases, resulting in a constant increase in the quantity consumed to achieve a comparable euphoria. This can result in rapid deterioration, compounding on potentially harmful mental issues.

For those with mental health problems, the noted impacts will serve to exacerbate their pre-existing issues.

Drug abuse and its impact on student lifestyle

Drug abuse can make a student’s lifestyle unfulfilling and unaspiring. Drugs release up to 10 times the amount of dopamine and serotonin that a regular activity like playing in a football match may release. Hence, a student may focus on using drugs as much as possible due to both the minimal effort required to attain them, as well as the accessible euphoria that they provide.

Engaging in fulfilling activities like volunteering, or playing for a university team, has a greater long-run payoff for one’s mental health. These activities can enrich students’ lives, making them feel more content, proud and confident. By contrast, drugs provide short-lasting and unnatural benefits. They allow one to experience immediate gratification without doing any work. Martin Seligman, a professor who specializes in positive psychology, discusses the importance of leading an engaging and meaningful life, alongside immediate pleasures, in order to be truly happy. Drugs can only provide immediate pleasure, and often students adapt to replace traditionally engaging activities with the ephemeral pleasures that drugs can provide. This can push students down a path of mental health issues.

The worries may flood in: will my mental health get worse without drugs? Can I make friends without drugs? The list of worries goes on.

Mild drug abuse can quickly escalate to intense drug abuse. How might a student deal with their mental health problems once they are so accustomed to taking drugs? Students may be willing to take more drugs to deal with their problems that arise as their mental health deteriorates, and even if a student is aware of the problem and wants to cut down, it is understandably hard to stop. The worries may flood in: will my mental health get worse without drugs? Can I make friends without drugs? The list of worries goes on. Thus, drug abuse can quickly increase from 3 to 4 days a week to everyday. Once drug abuse becomes a habit it can increase exponentially, leaving a host of ever-growing issues in its damaging wake. More serious mental health problems may subsequently emerge, such as psychosis, self-harm or even suicidal thoughts.

Solving the problem

Universities need to be more pro-active in helping students with drug problems. They are not going to be able to eradicate drug abuse, but they can reduce it.

Most universities refuse to acknowledge students’ drug use. The Vice article, ‘Why are Universities so Scared to Talk About Drugs?’ explains that universities are reluctant to talk about drug problems because they fear that their reputation will be damaged. I have never seen a poster or been talked to about the risks of taking drugs at UoB even though universities are the first-time people are heavily exposed to drugs. The taboo needs to end, and universities need to accept that there is a drug problem. They need to take responsibility and protect their students rather than their reputation.

Universities must educate their students about the effects drugs have on mental health. If people knew the effects they would be less likely to abuse them. They must also give advice on how to take drugs safely, something that the University of Swansea has recently started doing. Also, if a student body has been well-educated, it will be in a much better position to help out those in need.


Equally important is educating students about how to live a healthy lifestyle and the benefits of doing so, as a healthy life is vital for good mental health. Exercise, for example, releases chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, as well as simultaneously reducing craving for drugs. Being pro-active can be difficult, especially if someone is dealing with personal issues, but if people were more aware of the benefits they may make a conscious effort to be active. The University of Buckingham have implemented healthy lifestyle classes that are mandatory to attend- other universities should similarly implement obligatory health classes for first year students.

Additionally, providing counselling is necessary, as even with education, people will still end up abusing drugs and may require further support. A professional counsellor would prove to be an invaluable resource for those who need guidance that might be more specialized or tailored to the individual. There should be a sub-sector within the mental health service at universities that provides work specifically for people with drug problems.

Both education and a counselling service could be provided by a drug specialised charity such as Release or Addiction, both of whom could provide part-time support at the university. These charities could provide a counsellor who works at the university for 2-3 days a week, specifically to help people with drug problems.

Educating students and providing a counselling service is the least a university can do. More substantial change like making first year count towards the degree would be more effective, yet this is unrealistic as an initial goal. If you ever have concerns about your mental health, be it drug-related or not, please be open about it it with a friend, family or a counsellor. It will do you so much justice.

Featured Image: Unsplash / Thought Catalogue

Drugs have consequences. Be aware of the health risks they may bring and be informed. Talk to Frank provides clear cut information on a variety of drugs, click here to find out more.

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