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Graduate Student Resources and Support for Substance Abuse

Substance abuse impacts a significant number of adults in the US, even while in graduate school. This guide shares how to recognize the signs and how to find or give support, plus provides a list of resources to help.

Author: Angela Myers

Editor: Staff Editor

A man appears distressed, sitting with his head in his hands at a table with a blurry bottle of alcohol in the foreground, suggesting issues related to drinking.

If you’re a graduate student, it’s incredibly likely you know someone who has struggled with addiction. A 2019 study in the journal Focus suggests almost half of all college and graduate students have dealt with addiction and substance abuse problems at some point during their education. Addiction can take a variety of forms, but it leads to similar consequences, including poor mental health, a loss of control, poor academic performance, and health complications. Luckily, resources are available so no one has to overcome substance abuse and addiction alone.

This guide includes recommendations and expertise to help you say no to alcohol abuse and drugs and yes to improved mental health, better academic performance, and a brighter future. Learn about warning signs of substance abuse and alcoholism, how to support a loved one who is suffering from addiction, and substance abuse resources available to graduate students.

Know the Signs: Substance Abuse, Alcoholism, & Addiction

The first step to curbing addiction is to identify the problem. By understanding the warning signs that someone is suffering from substance abuse, alcoholism, or another form of addiction, you can seek help more quickly. It’s also important to know the different types of addictions, especially those most common in university settings. While some might be obvious, such as seeing drug paraphernalia on a student’s desk, others are more subtle–and might not even be commonly identified as a sign of an addiction. Read on for the signs and most common abuse and addiction problems you may witness during college or grad school.

Signs That Someone has a Substance Abuse Problem

The warning signs of addiction can be easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of some of the most common signs of substance abuse for grad and undergrad students.

If you notice any of the following in your friends or classmates, substance abuse could be to blame:

  • Sudden poor academic performance
  • Skipping classes
  • Mood changes and mood swings
  • A decline in hygiene or appearance
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and passions
  • Risky behaviors (like unprotected sex, reckless driving, etc.)
  • Aggression and getting into fights
  • Lying and manipulation

Of course, these could signal other issues too, from depression to financial problems. But understanding that substance abuse could be at the root of the problem will help you determine what to do next.

Common Substances (Legal and Illegal)

The above warning signs could be from a variety of different substances, some legal and others illegal. The most common substances abused include:


Alcohol is a legal substance and for most people in small amounts it’s not harmful, though it can impair judgment. In larger amounts and/or with frequent use, alcohol can cause liver damage, disruptions in cognitive abilities and mood, a weakened immune system, and certain types of cancers. While drinking is okay occasionally, developing an emotional or physical dependence on alcohol is a sure sign someone is suffering from alcoholism. Drinking every day, sneaking drinks when no one is watching or when alone, and drinking until blacking out are also signs of alcoholism.


Marijuana is a psychoactive drug combining cannabis and THC. It is illegal in 29 states and legal for adult recreational use in 21 states plus the District of Columbia. This mind-altering substance can impair cognition, learning capabilities, and physical coordination. While there are no recorded instances of marijuana overdose, users can develop an emotional or mental dependence on marijuana to feel happier or more relaxed. This dependence creates an addiction that can harm the user’s mental well-being and critical thinking skills. Over time, users can develop tolerance and will often turn to more harmful drugs to achieve the same high they used to get from marijuana.

Prescription Opioids

Opioids are a class of drugs that include codeine, morphine, oxycodone, and others. When used as prescribed, opioids can relieve pain from chronic illnesses, cancer, or severe injuries. When misused, they can wreak havoc on both mental and physical health. Opioids block signals that relay pain in the body to the brain, causing drowsiness, slowed breathing, nausea, confusion, and other harmful side effects. Over time, this class of drugs slows one’s metabolism, weakens the immune system, and increases the chance of certain diseases, including HIV/AIDs. Anytime someone uses these drugs other than how they are prescribed or uses someone else’s prescription it’s considered a case of substance abuse.


Commonly prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Adderall increases focus, improves memory, and strengthens decision-making skills. When it’s used differently than prescribed or when it wasn’t prescribed to begin with, Adderall is an addictive substance with serious side effects. Adderall can actually harm cognitive functioning and decision making when used inappropriately or without a prescription. It can also make it more difficult to pay attention or remember important details when not using the drug, creating a dangerous mental dependence on the substance. Because of these adverse effects, this drug should only be used as prescribed and by the person it was prescribed to.


Heroin is a highly addictive opioid with serious side effects. Because of these side effects and the risk of overdose, heroin is never prescribed to treat pain and is illegal in every country. Once heroin enters the brain, it alters pain and pleasure receptors, giving users a feeling of euphoria. In the short term, it can cause nausea, severe itching, and impaired mental functioning along with a euphoric high. In the long term, heroin attacks the body and mind, causing collapsed veins, heart problems, liver and kidney disease, and mental disorders. It’s also possible to overdose, which leads to a life-threatening situation that often results in death.


Cocaine is another highly addictive, highly illegal substance. It’s a stimulant made from coca plants that floods the brain with dopamine, causing an extreme high. After the high is over, dopamine receptors are fried and users may find it hard to feel happy or regulate their mood. It can also lead to irritability, paranoia, nausea, and an irregular heartbeat. Over time, users may develop heart problems, respiratory infections, and a weaker immune system. It can also lead to movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease.


Because it’s a highly addictive and dangerous stimulant, methamphetamine is illegal and any use constitutes substance abuse. In the short-term, it can increase energy, decrease appetite, and cause an irregular heartbeat. Long-term use causes weight loss, dental problems, skin sores from scratching, violent behavior, and sleeping problems. It also changes the structure of the brain, which can make it hard for the brain to regulate mood and executive functioning. Over time, users might also experience hallucinations and paranoia, even when they aren’t on the drug.

Where to Find Help on or Off Campus

If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction, you don’t have to face this problem alone. There are plenty of on- and off-campus resources available to students in graduate school. Many of these resources are free or have a significantly reduced cost. Depending on your state’s laws, these resources are often anonymous, meaning you don’t have to worry about being punished for using an illegal drug. Let’s discuss how to find judgment-free and useful resources both on and off campus.

On Campus

While not all universities have the same substance abuse resources, many have judgment-free programs that won’t report users to the police. Many of these programs are free and located on campus. Depending on your school, some might also be available online, meaning you can seek treatment from the comfort of your own home.

To give you a better idea of what on-campus resources might look like, take a look at the offerings from these three schools:

To learn more about resources available on your campus, check your university’s website.

Off Campus

Along with resources available at your university, local organizations and local governments also provide free or lower cost resources. These are especially beneficial for those who feel uncomfortable seeking help on campus or for online students who live far from their university.

For a better idea of what off campus resources might look like, check out these examples from across the nation:

  • LA Service and Bed Availability Tool: This online tool helps those with an addiction or their friends and families look for substance abuse treatment and services in the Los Angeles area.
  • Great Lakes Psychology Group: This private group provides mental health services to those in Michigan who are suffering from substance abuse. Therapy sessions and support groups are available in person or online.
  • The Turning Point: This nonprofit provides access to substance abuse resources to low-income individuals in Greenville, SC.

These examples give you an idea of what might be available in your area. Resources vary by town and city, as do local laws governing them.

How to Help Someone Struggling with Substance Abuse

When a friend, family member, or other loved one is struggling with substance abuse, it can be hard to know how to support them. Words often feel clunky, and you might be unsure what they need. To help address this discomfort and uncertainty, take a look at these research-backed ways to support a friend who is struggling with substance abuse and maintain your own mental well-being along the way:

Learn About Addiction

If you’re reading this article, you’re already taking the first step. By learning more about what your friend is going through, you become a more empathetic and knowledgeable supporter. Learning about addiction takes many forms. You could research addiction using reputable online sources (start with our list further down in this guide), check out books from the library, or seek out a substance abuse professional’s insight. Depending on your school, you might also be able to seek out a professor or speaker who is an expert on the topic or participate in on-campus awareness events.

Offer Support but Don’t Enable

When someone is suffering from substance abuse, it’s important not to enable their habits. For example, if your friend is addicted to alcohol, inviting them to trivia night at your town’s bar might not be a good idea. Instead, look for ways to support them and spend time with them in a place where the addictive substance won’t be present. Swap wine Wednesdays for workout Wednesdays and try new gyms around town.

Establish Boundaries and Stick to Them

While you should support your loved one, you also need to practice self-care. Often, those suffering with addiction aren’t thinking properly and have mood regulation problems. This can lead to them depending too much on loved ones, lashing out at others, or withdrawing socially–all of which takes a mental toll on loved ones. To mitigate the emotional harms of these actions, set boundaries around when, how, and where you see your friend and any self-care activities you can do to reenergize after offering support.

Make Sure You Are in a Position to be Helpful

If you are going through a tough time mentally, such as experiencing burnout from stress or grappling with a difficult breakup, you might not be in an emotional place to help your friend. Before supporting your classmate, make sure you are in a headspace where you can provide constructive help. Additionally, it might help to learn more about substance abuse so any feedback or suggestions you provide are on target for beating addiction.

Avoid Lecturing, Guilt, Intimidation as a Tactic

Seeing someone you care about destroy their well-being with a harmful substance can be frustrating. This irritation can lead to wanting to lecture your friend about the harms of their addiction or to intimidate them into giving it up. It can also lead to saying or acting in a way that might make them feel guilty. While guilt, intimidation, and lectures can bring about short-term change, they will probably make your friend feel more isolated and disappointed in themselves, which will only strengthen their addiction in the long term. Try to avoid all these tactics as much as possible.

Look Into Resources and Options That Could Help Them

While it can often feel like the burden to support a loved one falls only on your shoulders, this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are plenty of resources and qualified professionals who can help your friend or family member recover from addiction. Find some nearby resources and compile a list of different options to pursue. By giving a friend multiple options, the choice of how they get help is ultimately up to them, which can feel empowering if a substance has control over their life.

Encourage Them to Seek Help

Unless you’re a qualified mental health or substance abuse professional, you’re probably not in a place to create a recovery plan for your friend. Even if you are a qualified expert, you might be too close to your friend to give unbiased advice. Luckily, there are unbiased experts out there ready to help your loved one. When you encourage someone to seek help, you are a motivating force for getting the expertise they need to beat their addiction.

Stay Involved, in a Way That is Healthy for You

Rehabilitation is a process full of emotional ups and downs, grief, renewal, exhaustion, and new energy. The highs and lows can take a toll–and not just on the person who is going through the rehab process. The cycle can greatly impact those around them too. Because of this, make sure you’re staying involved in your loved one’s rehab process in a way that is healthy for you. This can include checking in with yourself mentally every week (or every day) to make sure you’re still doing well. It could also look like seeking out a counselor or therapist for yourself or joining a support group for loved ones of those suffering from addiction.

When you’re supporting a loved one with a substance abuse problem, it’s important to take care of yourself first. If you’re feeling depleted or mentally unwell, you won’t be as helpful to your friend–and you might experience other adverse effects, such as poor academic performance or increased anxiety. Throughout the recovery process, practice self-care so you are in a mental state to help your friend.

Resources for Graduate Students Impacted by Substance Abuse

If you or a classmate are struggling with substance abuse, you aren’t alone. There are plenty of national, university-specific, and state-specific resources available to graduate students impacted by addiction. No matter where you live or what college you attend, these 20 free resources are a good place to start:

  • Addiction Resource: This website offers a variety of useful guides on how to handle different scenarios related to addiction, such as a bad trip or withdrawal symptoms.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous: This national group therapy program has branches all over the country that are free to join.
  • Al-Anon Family Groups: This support organization offers local events and weekly meetings for loved ones and family members who are worried about someone’s use of alcohol.
  • American Addiction Centers: As the leading provider in the United States for substance abuse recovery, American Addiction Centers offers free or reduced-cost resources. These include their network of mental health providers as well as free online resources.
  • American College Health Association: This organization is broader, addressing a variety of health issues affecting college and graduate students, including substance abuse.
  • CADCA: This national nonprofit empowers local towns and cities to create drug-free communities. Part of their programming includes support for substance abusers and their loved ones.
  • Campus Drug Prevention: This federally funded initiative provides resources for universities and students to prevent substance abuse. They also host webinars to empower college students to become leaders in the fight against addiction.
  • College Drinking Prevention: For those suffering from alcoholism, this federally funded initiative provides free resources and tools to beat alcohol addiction.
  • Faces & Voices: This nonprofit mobilizes Americans who have recovered from substance abuse to share their stories.
  • Free By the Sea: Along with providing services at recovery centers across the country, Free By the Sea has a wide library of online resources about addiction and substance abuse by college students.
  • Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery: This center, housed at Ohio State University, offers free resources for universities and college students on how to prevent and recover from substance abuse.
  • Narcotics Anonymous: This group therapy program was based on Alcoholics Anonymous but is intended for those struggling with narcotic use.
  • Prevention Action Alliance: This nonprofit organizes events, seminars, and training sessions to help college students learn how to support friends dealing with substance abuse and how to create addiction-free communities on their campus.
  • Project Know: Those looking for more information on addiction recovery will find Project Know’s free resources and guides useful.
  • Recovery.net: This free website from Recovery Centers of America provides resources for those seeking recovery, either for themselves or loved ones.
  • Recovery Answers: As a research institute, Recovery Answers provides the most up-to-date information on substance abuse and recovery.
  • Rehabs.com: This website helps connect users to local resources and treatment centers. There’s also an option to search by insurance providers so any suggested treatment is covered by insurance.
  • Rethinking Drinking: This website provides useful information about early warning signs of alcoholism, how much is a healthy amount to drink, and how to ask for help when struggling with alcohol addiction.
  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline: Hosted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, this confidential support helpline offers 24/7 counseling for those suffering from substance abuse. Through the hotline, you can work with an expert to find local resources and recovery options.
  • SmokeFree: Those addicted to tobacco might find the resources from this federally funded website to be helpful. There’s also a free guide to create a quitting plan.

Interview with a College Counselor

Jackie Darby

We’ve interviewed Dr. Jackie Darby, a licensed psychologist and certified group psychotherapist in the Washington, DC, area. She is the owner of The Unconscious Shift, a wellness consulting agency that focuses on providing workshops on mental health wellness to community organizations.

Q: What do you wish more college and grad students knew about substance abuse?

A: I wish that more college and grad students realized that the line between engaging in healthy use and abuse is very thin. Individuals who abuse substances do not have a look; abuse can impact anyone at any time. Someone you know could be struggling with it and you wouldn’t know it.

Q: What should graduate and college students know about supporting a friend with substance abuse issues?

A: That people can only change once they are ready to change. Sobriety is a journey and not a destination. If you want to support a friend on their journey, ask them what the best way to support them is.

Q: What are the most effective ways to recover from substance abuse?

A: It depends on how you define “recovery.” For some individuals, attending an in-patient facility is the most effective way and for others attending support groups is the most effective. What is important is picking a way that will promote health. For example, if someone has a severe dependency on alcohol, the best way is to seek medical intervention as detoxing from severe alcohol dependence can be deadly.

Q: How can someone recovering from substance abuse or a friend or family member of someone recovering practice self-care during the recovery journey?

A: One thing the family member or friend can do is to set boundaries with the person in recovery. Remember, it isn’t your job to “fix” the individual but to support them. Let the responsibility of their recovery be their responsibility.

Q: What can someone do to set themselves up for success when recovering from substance abuse?

A: To set up for success, a person should be honest about their use and triggers. Sometimes people relapse because they underestimate how strong a trigger can be. As someone once said to me, “You need to snitch on the triggers.”