On Campus: Combatting Drug & Alcohol Abuse

BlogRx is a content series developed by the Prescription Drug Safety Network to discuss the prescription drug safety landscape. In recognition of National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, the first iteration of the series will focus on demystifying the common misconceptions surrounding drug and alcohol use and misuse among young people today. This blog post features interviews with Chief Carl Rowan (George Mason University) and Dr. Laura Finkelstein (Director of Student Counseling Services at Marymount University). This blog will discuss:

  • A University’s Role in Substance Abuse
  • Managing The Risks
  • Prevention Strategies & Data
  • Getting The Message Through To Students

Carl Rowan, Jr. is the Chief of Police & Assistant Vice President for Public Safety at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia where he leads a state certified law enforcement agency at Virginia’s largest state university. Chief Rowan is a former Deputy US Marshal and Special Agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He has extensive experience in the areas of law enforcement, physical security, and emergency preparedness. He is also a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center and is a member of the DC Bar.  

Psychologist Laura Finkelstein is the Director of Student Counseling Services at Marymount University in Arlington, VA.  She oversees a clinic of eight counselors who treat students dealing with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and substance use.  She also engages in outreach with the greater campus on drugs and alcohol.

A University’s Role In Substance Abuse

CHIEF ROWAN:  I think having a University administration that speaks up loudly on the issue of prescription drug and alcohol safety is very important.  Remaining silent and looking the other way will only lead to tragedy.  It is also beneficial when a university is open to changing their policies and procedures to better address the present threat.  For instance, for the past year, all of our officers have carried naloxone on their belts that they can administer immediately if they find someone who has overdosed on an opioid.  The University administration supported this policy and, already, it has been successful.

DR. FINKELSTEIN:  The counselors on my campus work closely with psychiatric nurse practitioners who prescribe medication. This is often a student’s first experience being prescribed drugs, so education in this moment is crucial. We make sure they understand the side effects and how to take and manage their medications responsibly.  It’s important that schools recognize the culture and trends around substance abuse and take effective steps accordingly. Some universities may be reluctant to even identify prescription drug abuse as an issue for fear of how it could affect their reputation.  They may be concerned that education or events about opioid abuse might be misconstrued by students, parents, and the community as their particular school having a major issue.

Managing the Risks

CHIEF ROWAN:  Prescription drug abuse is different to deal with than, for example, marijuana, because it’s often harder to detect.  For example, there is no tell-tale smell to signal abuse in progress.  The abuse can go on in the shadows, unlike some drug abuse that is more predictable, such as stimulant abuse on campus around exam time. To help keep opioids off of our campus, we work closely with our law enforcement partners in surrounding communities to target drug dealers who wish to do their dealing on campus, and we deploy drug dogs that can detect hidden narcotics in vehicles entering the campus. We are taking many different measures to mitigate against student opioid use, and we are seeing positive results. Despite these results, alcohol and marijuana abuse continues to be a stubborn problem, and we are also responding to an increase in LSD use in our county.

DR. FINKELSTEIN:  The fear factor is high on campuses right now regarding opioids.  It’s on everyone’s radar. For students who are using, we try to pinpoint the underlying motivation and figure out non-risky ways the student can manage that.  Usually we find that drug use is the outcome of another issue, such as depression or social anxiety, rather than the origin of the problem. Of the students who come into our counseling center, however, a very low percentage report dealing with prescription drug abuse personally.  More often they have concerns about a person in their life who is addicted.  We can provide them with resources (recovery centers and therapists across the country), but they typically also need help dealing with the impact their loved one’s addiction has had on them.  It can seriously affect their development, sense of safety, and ability to engage in school and activities.

The Financial Costs of Not Addressing Why do College Students Drink?

Not addressing “Why do College Students Drink?” can hurt your campus finances by damaging your campus culture and diverting key resources away from prevention.

Prevention Strategies & Data

CHIEF ROWAN:  In addition to combatting drug abuse, one of the things that our data has shown us, again and again, is that when we enhance enforcement of alcohol statutes, sexual assaults decrease.  There is a direct correlation.  Alcohol is serious problem on campuses because drunkenness also leads to additional negative consequences such as DUIs, assaults, and disorderly conduct, in addition to sexual assaults.  As part of our effort against alcohol abuse, one successful tactic that we employ is that we intervene when we see males “helping” seriously intoxicated females back to their dorms.  We separate them and make sure the female gets to her destination safely, or gets medical attention, if required.  Since initiating this practice this year, the number of sexual assaults reported to police has decreased by 57%.

DR. FINKELSTEIN:  We encourage students to get involved.  Feeling part of the campus community tends to negatively correlate with drug use.  We also find it effective when students consider a situation before they encounter it in real life.  This allows them to assess their values and figure out how they would like to react beforehand, rather than making a decision in the moment.  Data is a huge benefit when creating prevention strategies. Historically, we’ve only had data for the students who come in to see our counselors, but there are almost certainly students who struggle with these issues and are not seeing a counselor.  We just implemented a campus-wide health survey which will help us understand these issues more broadly and tailor our outreach and prevention efforts accordingly.

Getting The Message Through To Students

CHIEF ROWAN:  The more education that occurs, the better.  If the students hear the right messages reinforced by numerous sources – other students, parents, school administrators, police — hopefully they will listen to someone.  Students have somebody that they listen to.  It is our job to include a wide spectrum of “messengers.” Such education is an important part of freshmen orientation, but it’s difficult to spend enough time on our messaging because they have a full day with a lot of new information coming at them and there simply isn’t enough time to make all of our points.  This is an area where I think having digital education materials available that students, and parents, can review at their convenience would be an effective option.

DR. FINKELSTEIN:  For students, when an adult starts talking to them about drugs and alcohol, there is often an automatic defensive feeling.  Many parents are nervous about their children going to college, which is totally normal, but sometimes that anxiety can get in the way of actually listening.  Destigmatize these conversations by being empathetic and nonjudgmental. We have to decrease the shame around these issues so that young people feel like they are able to have a conversation with a family member, a counselor, or a peer before things go too far.  It becomes really dangerous when a student who is misusing substances feels that they have to keep it a secret. If they’re ashamed, they’re not going to ask questions or get help.

Colleges and universities have access to EVERFI’s Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention course at no cost through a national sponsorship from the Association of Accessible Medicines. For more information or to bring this prevention education program to your students, contact higheredinfo@everfi.com.