For this scholarship essay contest, we asked students to explore the relationship between mental health and substance use in college students amid COVID-19.
It was a complex topic, but contest participants delivered a number of well-researched, original essays. Here are the two winners we chose:
First Place Winner ($1,000)
Jordan Fortunato is a pharmacy student attending Ohio State University. Here is his essay in its entirety:
Mental Health & Substance Use in College Students Amid COVID-19
The link between mental health and substance abuse in college students is at an all-time high. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than a half (53%) of full-time college students aged 18-22 drank alcohol in the past month, and a third engaged in binge drinking in the past month. In addition to alcohol, 1/10 college students reported non-medical use of Adderall within the past year, along with an increase to 44% of people aged 19-28 using illicit drugs. Even with these staggering statistics, reasons remain unclear, ranging from peer pressure, stress, anxiety, easy availability, and/or studying aids. Personally, I have witnessed friends and other students binge drink and try new substances in the dormitories due to easy access and an inner curiosity to see what happens next. We have all been told a thousand times and watched videos highlighting that “drugs are bad” with all the negative side effects. However, in the heat of the moment, a lot of students still try alcohol and drugs for the thrill. College is the first opportunity for students to experience freedom and are not sure how to handle it. Additionally, a lot of my friends in college grew up with strict parents and curfews, so they are unaware of limits or how to find help without that already established structure. As a result, drugs and alcohol play the perfect answer for college students looking for a way out, to help study or focus, and to seek excitement.
COVID-19 has brought unwelcomed circumstances for both students and adults alike. Factors like social isolation and mental health reached all-time highs, leaving many already stressed students feeling more anxious and alone. Again, substance use abuse increased 13% as of June 2020 alone according to the CDC. Overdoses also spiked 18% compared to those in 2019. Feelings of social isolation for students experiencing college for the first-time resulted in students feeling helpless, lonely, and worried. Drugs have been viewed as a gateway for those seeking acceptance. I have seen this firsthand with my friend from back home in Philadelphia, who turned first to juuls to help her study and then later relax and get her mind off school. Eventually, a friend encouraged her to try marijuana, as he personally felt calm and at peace with himself during the pandemic. Although everyone reacts to drugs or medications differently, my friend decided to try it. Sure enough, she became obsessed with smoking different strains, not returning messages & letting her grades suffer. As her friend, I encouraged her to be cautious and offered help if she needed it, but I attend school in Ohio, and due to travel restrictions, felt limited in my abilities to be there for her. Feelings like helplessness and guilt crossed my mind, and even I felt some urgers to drink more or seek other forms of therapy I haven’t considered before. However, being able to open about my struggles with my roommates and family, although difficult at first, helped immensely with coping with these problems, allowing me to approach my friend back home with a clearer mind. Fortunately, she stopped smoking marijuana, but I truly realized the importance of having a support group or someone to talk to in needs of help, whether it’s a roommate, close friend, teacher, or parent—these small acts of listening & kindness go such a long way when it comes to both mental health & substance abuse as a college student, especially during COVID-19.
Baby steps are everything when it comes to both becoming addicted to drugs and recovering. In my opinion, some tips to help college students manage stress levels include taking frequent breaks from the books and participating in other healthy activities, either alone to clear the mind or with friends to encourage feelings of support and community. Some activities that helped me personally tackle both mental health and stress include working out, specifically lifting weights or running/bike riding. Something simple as 60 minutes a day lifting weights or going for a quick 30-minute bike ride stimulated the release of certain “feel good” endorphins to fight depression or anxiety symptoms. Other healthy activities include reading a book, going on a walk, facetiming friends, or cooking a meal—ideally anything that encourages the brain to take a brake and focus on other beneficial activities. Another baby step that is crucial when tackling mental health and substance use is to reach out for help, either from a counselor, close friend, teacher, parent, sibling, cousin, or co-worker. Environment is key to preventing bad habits, as we are the reflection of our 6 closest peers. If one’s friends enjoy partying every other night and using drugs, then he or she is more likely to abuse substances when compared to someone who surrounds himself or herself with friends that do not abuse drugs. This may require being honest with yourself and saying no—two extremely challenging tasks that no one should encounter alone. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial to avoid being alone as much as possible and reach out for help, especially how more convenient it is nowadays through telehealth, Zoom, and Microsoft teams.
Specific ideas for change include opening a personal calendar and creating evets to take a break or reach out to a friend to catch-up, setting reminders, and rewarding oneself through positive incentives once the event is completed. This not only helps reduce stress levels and breaks up the monotonous day-to-day tasks, but the physical reward received after crossing out the event improves mental health and results in self-satisfaction, encouraging you to continue improving. Other ideas, especially for those dealing with anxiety, include fidget spinners, stress balls, grip strength desk tools, or chewing gum to help focus and avoid the tendencies to binge. Reducing screen time, especially before bed, maintaining a healthy diet of whole foods and fruits and vegetables, and reaching out to healthcare professionals like doctors or pharmacists all help improve mental health and will leave students feeling motivated to make a difference rather than trapped at home. At the end of the day, college students are one of the highest risk populations for both mental health issues and substance abuse, so it is crucial that universities and fellow students alike are reaching out to the most vulnerable, listening first, spreading the right information, and most importantly, being always there for them. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and COVID or not, we have the power as a team to truly lift others up and tackle these struggles head on.
Thank you for taking the time to read my essay. I completed a substance misuse and abuse minor as an undergraduate student at The Ohio State University and am currently furthering my education as a pharmacy student to serve one day those struggling with drug abuse due to my personal experiences as a student. No one deserves to feel alone/stressed because of school or personal reasons, and I dedicate my life to help those in need. I hope you have a safe and happy holiday season.
Gabrielle Kirsch, MS, LAT, ATC attends A.T. Still University. Her essay is included below:
Detox Rehab Scholarship
Parties, fraternities/sororities, sporting events, and spring break. What do all of these things have in common? College! No matter how big or small the college campus, we have all been that student worrying about their finals to achieve a good grade in the class. The typical finals week looks a little like this when broke down:
Recipe for Finals Week:
Sleepless nights studying in the library
Insane amount of caffeine
Constant amount of worry and stress
Use of medication or substances to stay awake
Each of us have engaged in at least one of these activities to aid in preparation for finals week. Personally, I know that I slept less, took in excessive amounts of caffeine, and it took a toll on my mental health and body. Research shows that around one in four people with mental illness also have a substance use disorder.1 Certain drugs can also cause people with addictions to experience more symptoms of a mental health problem. For example, my Freshman year of college one of my friends took Adderall to help her stay awake and study for her finals. However, it also caused her to have an excessive headache, severe worry and anxiety, and loss of appetite. Although this drug kept her awake, it also negatively affected her mental health, her stress levels, and her physical body.
Research has shown that some people with mental health problems may misuse substances as a form of self-medication. Individuals with mental health illness try to numb the pain in any way possible, and for many, that reverts to using drugs and alcohol. College students especially resort to these measures when they have anxiety, depression, and fear about finals week. When their mental health illness arises, they want to decrease that feeling and resort to substance abuse to numb that feeling. Now imagine these same feelings, but now its 2020 and COVID-19 impacted your college years. You worry about learning differences from in-person to online classrooms, you stress about using a computer for all your work, but more than that you fear being the only one experiencing these things as you cannot physically interact with classmates.
COVID-19 made college student face challenges that we didn’t even know existed until 2020. Although everyone faced the overwhelming stress, emotions, and fear of COVID-19, college students faced negative impacts on their education. Due to the lockdown and stay at home orders, research shows that 71% of students indicated increased stress and anxiety because of the COVID-19 outbreak.2 To help cope with these changes, a large amount of college students turned to drugs and alcohol to pass the time and support with the stressors. College students didn’t get to partake in college festivities like every other year in fear of spreading the disease, and in return experienced a sense of loneliness, decreased social interactions, and disruptions to their sleeping patterns.
Although we are still seeing modifications to college experiences, there are many things that we can do at the collegiate level to help college students manage stress levels, mental health and substance abuse. The first thing to do is have a mental health campus service for students, faculty and staff. Although mental health issues are being brought to the forefront since COVID-19, there is still a stigma associated with mental health causing people to not seek medical help. Campus based mental health services can help provide guidance, information, and resources for students about mental health issues. Normalizing mental health at the college setting, and in all walks of life, can be beneficial in achieving help. Having a mental health service on campus will also allow students to receive an appointment with a counselor without having to wait long periods of time.
Another way to help manage stress and mental health concerns is to have a student government association (SGA) to help aid in alterative options and tips during finals week. SGA can create stress free events and activities throughout finals week to help with stress, fear, and anxiety associated with finals. This could include leading yoga and meditation sessions multiple times of the day to help alleviate mental stressors, coloring area to decompress from studying, and tutoring available for students needing assistance. SGA could also post flyers around very populated areas (i.e. library, cafeteria, dorms) tips for managing finals week such as avoiding alcohol and drugs, getting at least seven hours of sleep, and taking breaks during studying. Almost 50% of college students report they experience more than average stress levels2, therefore, if campuses can help reduce stress then we could help decrease mental health issues and possible substance abuse.
The final thing that we can do for college students starts in high school, and that is teaching real-world tips to students so they can achieve whether they go to college or not. The first tip is surround yourself with good people (even virtually). These people can either help, or hinder, your success in life as they can affect your mental, emotional, and physical state. The second tip is to teach time management skills that can be taken and used once in college. Time management skills will aid in creating sleep schedules, being on time for class, planning for large assignments, and making sure you take aside for yourself. The final tip we can implement in high school and carrying into college is taking care of your health and wellness. Health and wellness include your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects to ensure good health. When in college, you can manage your health and wellness through physical activity, completing regular check-ups with a physician (even if virtually), talking to an academic advisor for questions about your major, or seeking help at the tutoring center. All of these tips can aid in decreasing mental health issues, managing stress levels, and in result reducing substance abuse due to mental health concerns with being in the loom of COVID-19.
By implementing these ways and resources for college students, it can aid in managing mental health and substance abuse. Although some things may be different for college students now than before 2020, most colleges have made accommodations for students virtually through Zoom, Telehealth visits, and online classes. COVID-19 has put a damper on a great deal of things, but most we can still engage in whether being socially distanced, virtual options, or online education material. Therefore a new finals weeks could look like this:
New Recipe for Finals Week:
Getting adequate sleep for optimal performance
Reaching out to tutors, mental health services for assistance (virtually or in person)
Engage in activities to decompress from studying (at home or on campus)
Avoid drugs and alcohol
Surround yourself with good people (even virtually)
1. NIDA. “Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 13 Apr. 2021, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/part-1-connection-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illness Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
2. Son C, Hegde S, Smith A, Wang X, Sasangohar F. Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study. J Med Internet Res. 2020;22(9):e21279. Published 2020 Sep 3. doi:10.2196/21279