Most university students take illegal drugs to have fun, but a third use them to deal with stress, and a fifth to self-medicate mental health problems, a new study has revealed.
Carried out by drug charity Release and the National Union of Students (NUS), "Taking the Hit: student drug use and how institutions respond" questioned 2,800 students in February about their drug use, as well as 151 universities about their drug policies. The study's authors concluded that universities are failing to protect students from the potential harms of drugs and from the criminal justice system.
Believed to be the largest study of UK student drug use of its kind, the survey found the vast majority (80 percent) of students who took drugs did so for recreational purposes. More specifically, they used drugs to "enhance social interactions", to make friends and become closer to existing friends, and improve confidence.
University students are more likely to use drugs than other young people in the general population. Just over half of students surveyed said they had ever used an illegal drug, with 39 percent saying they currently use them. This compares to 35 percent of 16 to 24-year olds in the general population who have ever taken a drug, and 19 percent who have taken one in the last year.
Cannabis is by far the most commonly used substance, having been tried at some point by 94 percent of those who had used an illegal drug. Ecstasy is the second most commonly used drug for students, followed by cocaine (which is the second most used drug among 16 to 24-year-olds in the general population, ahead of ecstasy), nitrous oxide, ketamine and LSD. Very few said they used smart drugs.
Of those who used drugs to help deal with existing mental health problems, two-thirds viewed them as being beneficial, while a third said drug-taking had been detrimental. Female, LGBT and disabled students were significantly more likely to use illegal drugs because of mental health problems, and were more likely than others to find that taking drugs improved their day-to-day experience of an existing mental health condition.
Zoe Bailie, Director of Brand at The Mix – a free, confidential information and support service for under-25s – says: "At The Mix, content about drugs ranks among our top viewed pieces, showing how young people are seeking trusted information on the effects of using drugs. It's not a surprise that some students use drugs to self-medicate their mental health issues. We know that illegal drugs are widely accessible in universities and that support for mental wellbeing might not be. This shows how important it is to make mental health support easily available to all young people, as well as removing the stigma surrounding accessing support, so students will be able to develop healthier coping mechanisms."
Away from mental health, most students had a relaxed attitude towards drug use and felt safe using them. But those who had never used drugs were less relaxed: two-thirds said they had a problem with recreational drug use.
The most common venues for student drug taking are at home, house parties, festivals, parks and local night clubs. Conversely, most students said they did not get high at student union venues: over 80 percent of respondents who used drugs said they had never taken drugs at their students' union bar or students' union nightclub.
Getting high on a night out provoked both positive and negative results for students: 53 percent enjoyed the experience of having sex on drugs, 18 percent regretted it, 46 percent woke up feeling embarrassed about things they had said and 50 percent were unable to remember what had happened the night before. One-third of respondents reported they had taken risks with their safety that they would not have taken if they had not been using drugs.
Nearly half of all students who admitted getting high said drugs had made them miss lectures, although 29 percent said getting high had led to them attending a class they otherwise would not have attended.
The report says students were aware of basic drug harm reduction, such as staying in a safe environment, knowing what they are taking and avoiding dehydration. Even so, many students admitted they often failed to follow one of the other major rules of harm reduction: not mixing illegal substances with alcohol.
One in seven said they have come into contact with the criminal justice system as a result of using drugs, either being searched, cautioned, arrested, fined or charged with possession. One in four said they wouldn’t feel comfortable disclosing information about their drug use to university drug services because of fear of punishment.
The survey's analysis of the drug policies at 151 universities concluded that most are entirely focused on problem drug use, while offering little proactive harm reduction for the vast majority of students who use drugs recreationally, an issue raised by drug safety experts in VICE last year.
The report said: "The types of support that universities either offered to students or signposted to them reflected neither the types of support that student respondents tend to access nor those they were most satisfied with, suggesting a disconnect between students' support needs and the support made available via their educational institutions."
Only a handful of students are excluded for drug possession each year. Yet the report found that although universities have no obligation to, around one in four possession incidents are reported to the police. It said some students were being punished by universities for behaviour that is not a criminal offence, such as using drugs and possessing new psychoactive substances.
There were also concerns raised by the report's authors that surveillance measures to detect drugs on campus, such as drug swab testing and sniffer dogs, are in place at a number of universities. At Harper Adams University in Newport, students can have their hands swabbed on entry into the SU bar. Brighton University's police liaison team says it carries out regular drug swipe tests at the halls of residence.
The report recommended that universities ditch invasive and unfair punitive approaches to drugs and introduce "practical and supportive policies in place, which raise students' awareness and facilitate their access to information and appropriate support services".
It said student unions should work collaboratively with educational institutions and local clubs to review policies that relate to drugs, provide harm reduction advice and promote drug checking services. Lastly, it called on the NUS to undertake a membership-wide consultation to identify the resources and needs of students' unions to provide drug advice and education.
Tom Madders, Campaigns Director at YoungMinds, said: "It’s worrying that so many students are using drugs as a way of dealing with stress. We know that students can face all sorts of pressures – they may be living away from home for the first time, trying to make new friends, having relationship issues, struggling with financial problems or finding that their course isn’t what they expected. For young people who are already receiving mental health services at home, it can also be difficult to access the same level of support at university without having to go through referral and assessment again.
"It's really important that students are able to reach out for help on campus if they're struggling to cope, especially as NHS services are often overstretched. But we also need a government strategy to ensure that we’re meeting the mental health needs of all 18 to 25-year-olds, including students and those in training or apprenticeships."