Experimenting with substances, drinking and partying is a cornerstone of many college students’ social life. Some may argue that these are simply rites of passage in the undergraduate experience, but it is imperative to remember where the line is drawn between use and abuse, especially in the wake of multiple substance-related student deaths. While the University has responded to pressures placed by students, faculty and Los Angeles Times headlines to address its mental health crisis by expanding resources, students must also be cognizant and conscious of their own well-being, especially when it comes to their relationships with substances.
Four of the nine student deaths recorded last fall have been ruled drug overdoses. Some of the incidents were found to be related to the lethal synthetic opioid fentanyl, leading many in the community to speculate that the deaths were accidental rather than deliberate. That being said, the high risks associated with using prescription and illicit drugs may be indicative of further mental health concerns.
While not all drug users suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, it is important to consider that substance use and addiction often occur comorbidly. Mental illnesses like anxiety and depression may be causally related to substance use. Inversely, substance use can lead to the onset of anxiety and depression.
Research indicates that self-esteem may also play a role in a student’s proclivity to misuse substances. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Idaho and the University of Minnesota, undergraduate students with higher levels of self-critical perfectionism exhibited higher levels of drinking to cope compared to their peers, supporting pre-existing findings that suggested self-critical perfectionists engage in worser coping mechanisms. This is all the more relevant in a high-achieving academic environment like USC’s, where students are known to both “work hard, and play hard.”
Additionally, illicit drug use (including popular party drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and hallucinogens), demonstrates an even stronger association to suicidality compared to other risk-taking behaviors. According to an article published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, the habituation of using drugs with potentially lethal consequences may increase one’s acquired capability for suicidal behavior, desensitizing one’s fear of death.
Excessive substance use may be easily excused, and even encouraged, in high-paced collegiate social environments, leaving underlying mental illness to go unchecked. Students engaging in substance abuse may be doing so not only to cope with an illness but also simply to maintain social status-quo. As a result, mental illness and maladaptive coping mechanisms are inconspicuously disguised in the thriving social scene of USC.
The consequences of maintaining this norm include the perpetuation of an on-campus health crisis and preventable student deaths. While many students now remain bound to their homes, isolated from their friends and the campus social scene, it is paramount that personal time be allocated toward acknowledging mental well-being.
For many students, the now-limited access to parties and events typically held during the school year can provide an opportunity to slow down, pause and reevaluate one’s intrapersonal relationships concerning mental health and substance use. This can be achieved through spending more time with family members, devising new self-care strategies, utilizing the Engemann Student Health Center’s TeleHealth resources and finding different outlets and environments to try alternative coping mechanisms. The increased time for respite and reflection offers benefits to personal well-being, whether or not a student may face diagnosable mental health concerns.
Although the University along with the larger global community continues to face a public health crisis with the coronavirus, mental health must be at the forefront of the conversation. Students’ emotional and mental well-being is without a doubt a subject of concern in the face of radical changes in their academic environments. The long-term sustainability of USC ultimately depends just as much on the mental well-being of its students as it does on their physical health.