Psychiatric Conditions and Alcohol Abuse in the College-Aged

I always find epidemiological studies very interesting because they can give you a snapshot of the prevalence of certain conditions. Have you ever wondered about the prevalence of psychiatric conditions and alcohol use disorders among college students? This is a topic that has been studied extensively by many different research groups.

Recently, an article was published about this topic by a group of researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and it caught my attention. According to a series of over 40,0000 interviews conducted in the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), almost half of college-aged individuals had a psychiatric disorder in the past year. What was very interesting about this survey was that college students had a greater risk of alcohol use disorder compared to non-college students in the same age group.

AlcoholDoes this mean that you’re likely to run into life-long alcohol problems by going to college? Well, not necessarily. Let’s see why. If you read the study that was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, you’ll find that when the authors adjusted that risk by taking into account factors such as background sociodemographics, the risk for alcohol misuse between the college and non-college groups was roughly the same. However, college students were significantly less likely to have a diagnosis of drug use disorder or nicotine dependence. We all know that college students are surrounded by enormous peer pressure and parties. In fact, fatalities from alcohol intoxication are not too uncommon. Why aren’t college students seeking help if they have alcohol use disorders? Many of them probably fail to recognize the severity of the problem.

So what’s the bottom line? The conclusion of this paper reads:

Psychiatric disorders, particularly alcohol use disorders, are common in the college-aged population.

Most people probably already know this, so what did this paper tell us? We all know that many college students misuse alcohol and drugs. This often leads to life-long dependence problems and other serious mental health disorders. These researchers noted that many college students are not seeking professional help for their mental health problems. Treatment rates for alcohol misuse remain low and this underscores the need for public health initiatives aimed at both college students and their non-college-attending peers. People need to be reminded that no one is immune from the dangers of drugs, tobacco, or alcohol. The social stigmas associated with substance use may prevent people from seeking professional help, so this remains yet another barrier for people.

Alcohol misuse remains a significant public health problem in this country. There is tremendous need for interventions aimed at reducing alcohol abuse, especially in the college-aged population. The authors of this paper note that skills-based interventions, motivational interviewing, and personalized normative feedback are all effective ways to reduce drinking in college students.


C. Blanco, M. Okuda, C. Wright, D. S. Hasin, B. F. Grant, S.-M. Liu, M. Olfson (2008). Mental Health of College Students and Their Non-College-Attending Peers: Results From the National Epidemiologic Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions Archives of General Psychiatry, 65 (12), 1429-1437 DOI: 10.1001/archpsyc.65.12.1429

Joseph Kim, MD, MPH

Joseph Kim, MD, MPH, is a physician, engineer, technologist, and avid writer. He enjoys writing about advances in technology that are revolutionizing healthcare. Dr. Kim studied engineering at MIT, then received his medical degree from the University of Arkansas College of Medicine. He also has a master's degree in public health from the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health.
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