Hit the Books, Not the Bottle

Depression and substance use linked to dropping out of college

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) College can be both an exciting and a rough transition from high school. Those who struggle with mental health issues may find it harder to stay in school.

A recent study looked at what mental health conditions were linked to dropping out of college for a semester or more.

The researchers found that depression, marijuana use, and drinking may each play a part in dropping out.

"Seek help for depression."

The study, led by Amelia M. Arria, PhD, with the Center on Youth Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, investigated any possible links between substance use and other mental health issues with dropping out of college.

The researchers tracked 1,145 college students at the same large, public university for four years, starting in their freshman year in 2004. They were looking to see who had "discontinuous enrollment," which means the student dropped out of school for at least one semester, whether in the student's first two years or last two years in the study.

All the students were assessed with standard psychological tests for depression, anxiety, childhood behavior problems, marijuana use, other illegal drug use and alcohol use. Halfway through the study, the researchers also gathered data on the participants' mental health history, including whether they had ever been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression or anxiety.

The researchers found students with higher scores on the depression assessment were more likely to take a break for at least a semester in their first two years of college.

Meanwhile, smoking pot and drinking alcohol were linked to students' taking a break in their third or fourth years.

Those students who were actually diagnosed with depression while in college were more likely to leave school at any point during the four years for at least one semester.

The researchers concluded students with symptoms of depression or a full diagnosis of depression may be at risk for interruptions in their college career – especially if they smoke marijuana or drink.

"Going to college is a big adjustment," said LuAnn Pierce, a licensed and clinical social worker in Colorado. "Even college kids who have never had problems with anxiety or depression in the past can find themselves struggling. These issues often result in lack of sleep, poor nutrition, academic struggles and, in many cases, alcohol or drug use/abuse – a recipe for a mental health crisis if left unchecked."

Pierce told dailyRx News that parents do a variety of things to help prepare their children for college, including teaching coping, time management and study skills.

"Probably most important is raising kids with a healthy sense of self esteem," Pierce said. "These kids are less likely to give in to peer pressure and recognize that they are more than their grades, dress size or relationship status."

She added that teaching kids how to maintain good mental health – including seeking help when it is needed – is important as well.

This includes a balance in all things, especially sleep, nutrition, work and play," she said. "The key is recognizing when things first begin to get out of balance, and asking for help sooner rather than later. The longer we wait to ask for help, the harder it is to recover and the more there is to lose."

The researchers did not find that students with a history of mental health disorders were at any higher risk of dropping out of college. The study was published December 3 in the journal Psychiatric Services. The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 4, 2012
Last Updated:
December 11, 2012