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EDITORIAL: College students are not immune to adverse mental health effects of substance usage

Many college students do not feel that they can seek professional psychological help, and instead turn to substances to address their mental health issues

Overusing alcohol, marijuana or other substances to address mental health issues in place of seeking professional help can cause long-term psychological damage. – Photo by Pxhere

It is no secret that almost every college student has, at one point in their lives, gone down some grimy stairs into a fraternity party. You are blasted in the face by a wave of heat, loud music, free booze and the smell of weed and sweaty, disoriented people.

This might sound like a fun pre-pandemic Friday night — and for many it is — but for some students, substance usage crosses the line from recreational into dangerous, especially for their mental health.

The last thing you want to read is yet another public service announcement about how drugs and alcohol are bad. Marijuana and alcohol usage for recreation is more than fine, but only if used in moderation. When students use legal substances to cope with mental health issues, they end up hurting themselves in the long run.

We are not calling for the criminalization of alcohol or marijuana but rather for increased awareness about the mental health issues that go unnoticed when masked with a high or drunken night out.

The legalization of weed in New Jersey is absolutely a sign of progress. Jailing people for smoking marijuana ruins people’s lives for absolutely no reason. If weed overuse can sometimes worsen mental illness, then spending months, if not years, in prison is possibly the worst form of therapy.

As with all legal activities, legality does not always translate into absolute safety. It is legal to eat junk food, but too much of it will make your heart stop before you turn 60. It is legal to smoke, but we are all well aware of the side effects.

Self-medicating with substances to deal with emotional and mental problems is dangerous, and unfortunately, something that plagues college students across the country.

Approximately 20 percent of college students exhibit symptoms of alcoholism. Many students also use weed with increasing frequency (which is not necessarily an issue, if used responsibly). Substance use does not stop at alcohol and weed, and studies have shown that there is a strong link between substance abuse and mental health issues.

There are a host of medical problems that come with substance abuse, including physical and psychological dependency on weed and alcohol, weed-related psychosis and the exacerbation of existing mental problems. The psychological effect of masking emotional distress with substances causes a false sense of security and compounds the trauma that goes ignored.

It can be difficult to find reliable sources that explain the long-term psychological effects of substance abuse because people seem to be divided into two camps — either mind-altering substances are the devil himself leading you to temptation, or they are just something to do on a Tuesday night. The middle ground is rarely explored.

Marijuana specifically offers a range of medical and therapeutic benefits, like pain management, reduced inflammation and relief from symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the obvious benefits, some studies have shown the harm of intensive long-term usage.

To begin to address this mental health crisis, we have to take a look at why people turn to substances, potentially exacerbating their mental illnesses, instead of facing them head-on. 

Students may feel like they do not have the time or tools to address the way they are feeling. More likely, students may feel alone in dealing with mental illness due to the stigma surrounding it. It is easier to take a shot with your friends than open up about how you are feeling and why.

Cultural norms dictate that we keep quiet about our emotional and psychological turmoil. Even if we are comfortable speaking to our close friends about how we feel, it is not enough to address potential mental health issues. In some cases, professional help is necessary, but more times than not, students are not willing to seek this professional help because their mental health issues are thinly veiled behind a few drinks.

New Jersey is predicting a healthy amount of tax income from the sale of legal marijuana, and while there are plenty of issues in the state that require intensive funding, some of that new income should go toward programs that address mental illness and provide easily accessible resources to people looking to quit or lower their substance usage across the board.

What we can do as students is be cognizant of our own choices, encourage our friends to seek help if they need it and destigmatize mental illness whenever we can. It is not your responsibility to police other people’s behavior, but you should always make sure to support your friends in healthy decisions and create an environment where those decisions are possible.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue or substance abuse, do what you can to support them and have them reach out to Rutgers Counseling, Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program & Psychiatric Services (CAPS).

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 153rd editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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