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Substance Use vs. Substance Misuse: What’s the Difference?

Substance Use vs. Substance Misuse: What’s the Difference?

According to the New York Times, a 2014 study of more than 150,000 freshmen found that 9.5 percent of respondents had frequently felt depressed during the past year, compared to 6.1 percent five years ago. And 34.6 percent “felt overwhelmed” by schoolwork and other commitments.

Because of the increased pressure to succeed on their own, some students may turn to “substance use” to help them compensate for fatigue or to unwind after a long week. On a college campus however, it may be hard to determine the difference between using a substance in moderation and misuse.

For example, substances such as coffee and energy drinks are commonly used on college campuses, and when used in moderation generally will not pose a threat the health of students. Many students use Adderall or Ritalin; drugs that are designed to help a student perform better in school. When used as prescribed, these types of stimulants should help serve the student. However, while a cup of coffee or 10 milligrams of Adderall may be effective for a short period, the body may eventually adjust and crave stronger doses to produce the same effect, creating a potential bridge from substance use to substance misuse.

The Difference between Substance Use and Substance Misuse

The difference between periodic “substance use” and “substance misuse” is a fine line that can be difficult to identify due to a variety of reasons. For example, factors such as gender, weight, and metabolism mean that people react differently to the ingestion of drugs and alcohol which when misused, may have adverse health consequences.

When students move from the occasional use to more frequent use of alcohol, prescription drugs or illegal substances, they enter the path of “substance misuse.” What becomes more serious is when a student crosses the line into the territory of needing those substances to function on a daily basis. The functional need is classified as “substance use disorder,” and it is at this point when recovery becomes more difficult.

According to an ongoing study by Amelia M. Arria, et. al, “By their sophomore year in college nearly all students had the opportunity to try alcohol and a large majority had the chance to try marijuana and tobacco. About half had the chance to try prescription stimulants non-medically. Importantly, several other illicit drugs were also available to a substantial minority of students, with exposure opportunity exceeding 20%t for hallucinogens, prescription analgesics, ecstasy, and cocaine.

Alcohol Use and Misuse 

On college campuses across the country, binge drinking has become a major problem and an increasing cause of death. In a report by the National Institutes of Health U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Excessive drinking among college students is associated with a variety of negative consequences that include fatal and nonfatal injuries; alcohol poisoning; blackouts; academic failure; violence, including rape and assault; unintended pregnancy; sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; property damage; and vocational and criminal consequences that could jeopardize future job prospects.”

According to a 2014 report by SoberNation:

  • Over 1,500 students die each year from alcohol-related injuries.
  • Over half a million students are physically assaulted by an intoxicated student.
  • At least 97,000 students are victims of sexual assault and rape.
  • More than 150,000 students develop alcohol-related health issues.
  • Nearly 600,000 students are seriously injured due to alcohol related incidents.
  • 40 percent of academic issues stem from an alcohol-related cause.
  • 28 percent of all college dropouts are related to alcohol-induced issues.

“College presidents are reluctant to take on issues they feel they cannot change and this growing public health crisis reflects today’s society where students are socialized to consider substance abuse a harmless rite of passage and to medicate every ill,” said Reverend Edward A. Malloy, CSC, Chair, The CASA Commission on Substance Abuse at Colleges and Universities II and President Emeritus, University of Notre Dame.

According to the Mayo Clinic, diagnosing the misuse of alcohol is not always black and white. “Alcohol use disorder” can be mild, moderate, or severe based on the number of symptoms you experience. Those symptoms include being unable to limit how much you drink, spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from drinking, feeling strong cravings or urges to drink, drinking in situations where it’s not safe (like while driving), and developing a tolerance so that you need to drink more to feel its effect.

When a Loved One Is Suffering from Substance Misuse Disorder

To the friends and family members of someone suffering a substance use disorder, the signs may not be immediately recognizable. In some cases, by the time the disorder has progressed to the stage of recognizability, recovering becomes more difficult. A friend or family member can suggest getting assistance, but if the person denies or refuses, it is best to seek a professional to help.

According to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are over 3,500 board-certified physicians who specialize in identifying and assisting those with substance use disorders through recovery. Their website also lists early warning signs to help recognize if someone may be suffering from a substance use disorder and gives suggestions on how to help them start the recovery process.

Life of Purpose is one of the resources available, with a clinically proven understanding of the causes and effective treatments of substance and alcohol use disorders. Life of Purpose has developed the only academically-focused substance use disorder treatment facility located on or near college campuses in the United States. Their professional staff members are compassionate, empathetic, and warm, providing impactful guidance that assists recovering students and adults in learning how to abstain from the misuse of all dangerous substances.

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