In modern college culture, the stories of our parents’ aimless and wild fun have been replaced with a debilitating expectation of consistent excellence. The same drug and alcohol culture our parents experienced still exists, only now it exists alongside a need for excellence. The result is a culture of accepted substance use: one where binge drinking clouds the weekend, drug use runs rampant, and students Juul in and outside the library to destress. It is unquestionable that such ingrained behavior affects the increasing rates of mental illness amongst adolescents, providing concentrated evidence of a growing risk factor impacting our youth.

According to data established by the Mayo Clinic, risk factors can be as basic as birth-assigned gender and age-group. This is an essential point to reiterate that mental illness is not weakness. Just like physical illness, there are certain inherent characteristics and predispositions that increase your likelihood of developing mental illnesses. Although the biochemical and genetic contributors are not yet completely understood, we know that hormone level and neurotransmitter activity  play an integral role in mental health – similar to that of emotional and physical trauma. Changes in environmental stimuli, like a major life event or an increase in work and other responsibilities, can also put you at a higher risk.

More so than seismic life changes, our mental health is influenced by our lifestyles; seemingly small yet consistent habits can cause slow, but noticeable mental degradation in the same sense. As college students, we live in a culture of work hard, play hard. It is normal, if not expected, to spend 40 hours in the library, perform well in 15+ credits, and maintain involvement – not to mention leadership roles – in extracurriculars. And then, when Friday rolls around, it is time to blow off steam at frat parties and college bars, all of which go hand in hand with psychotropic drugs like alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. These are the drugs of “normal” people:the sort of drugs that are so widely used and accepted that you don’t think twice. Unlike harder substances like ketamine or heroine, our society deems these legal drugs as acceptable and, as such, we adopt them into our regular lifestyle.

The updated model of higher education is founded on the concept of ‘never enough,’as Yale University professor Dr. William Deresiewics has said. Students fluctuate between “depression and grandiosity.” It is no longer acceptable to have just a 4.0 GPA or serve as president of SGA and there is insurmountable pressure to have an internship or job lined up for next summer – we need it all. Our culture perpetuates high stress, and this binge of academics reciprocates in similar binges of carefree fun. According to the National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A),almost 50% of adolescents have any mental disorder. Alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine show undeniable correlation with mental illness. Alcohol, in particular, has been greatly investigated and displays a clear causative relationship between mental health disorders.

We are young. We want to have fun. I recognize the hypocrisy in identifying the pertinence of these drugs in mental health disorders. We are growing and learning, and as budding adults it is not reasonable to expect abstinence nor to chastise consumption; however, it is important to maintain awareness of these factors. The list of risk factors for mental health disorders seems endless, and, as discussed above, they all play a part in our oscillating state of mental health. These drugs are a way of coping – an overlooked and normalized form of substance abuse. Nonetheless, especially in regard to the 18-24 age bracket, it is all too easy to belittle mental illness as a bad mood or a normal response to stress, ignoring the extreme aspects of college life that may be contributors. 

Know your risk factors.

Pay attention to your body.

Acknowledge and respect how you feel.

Take ownership of your body in its entirety. Take ownership of this stage in life and the high stress atmosphere we all fall victim to. Recognize how current collegiate activities and habits alter our generation’s mental health. As young people growing up in a brave new world of excellence and expectation, it is paramount to mind the uniqueness of our environment and the ways in which it can adversely manifest in our overall wellbeing.

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