Being Emotionally Unprepared for College Linked to Increased Risk of Substance Use

Students who are emotionally unprepared for college have lower grades, are more likely to use drugs and alcohol and are more likely to consider transferring to a different school, compared with their peers who are more emotionally prepared, a new poll finds.

The results indicate that college readiness requires much more than a solid academic foundation, according to John MacPhee, Executive Director of the JED Foundation, one of the organizations that released the results of the National Harris Poll. “These findings are a call to action about the college readiness process,” he said. “We need to consider students’ emotional preparedness when we help prepare students for their transition from high school into college.”

The poll of 1,502 first-year college students was also sponsored by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and The Jordan Porco Foundation.

A majority of all students (60 percent) wish they had gotten more help with emotional preparation for college; certain groups of students were more likely to agree with this statement than their counterparts; those with a lower GPA (66 percent vs. 55 percent higher GPA), regularly consumed drugs or alcohol (65 percent vs. 58 percent who did not), considered transferring or transferred to a different school (70 percent vs. 56 percent who did not), and rated their overall college experience as “terrible/poor” vs. “fair” or “excellent/good” (85 percent vs. 68 percent and 51 percent).

Students who reported regularly consuming drugs or alcohol during their first term were more likely than non-regular drug and alcohol users to rate their emotional health worse than their peers and experience negative emotions such as stress, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. They also were more likely to say they had trouble getting the emotional support they needed during their first college term, and expressed a greater desire for help with emotional preparation for college.

“The findings about drug and alcohol use are important and surprising because they indicate students who are drinking and using drugs during their transition may be doing so because they are in distress,” MacPhee said. “We know that transitions are a time of risk as it relates to substance abuse.” The poll found 31 percent of respondents felt drinking is a normal part of the college experience, he noted. “This is worrisome,” he said. “It speaks to the need to educate students in high school before the transition takes place.”

Eighty-seven percent of students said that college preparation during high school focused more on academics than emotional readiness, and 50 percent said their independent living skills need improvement for college readiness. The poll found 57 percent felt a great deal of pressure to attend a well-known college, and 52 percent said high schools place a greater emphasis on college prestige than “fit.”

One way parents can help their students is to encourage them to select a school with the best fit in terms of emotional wellbeing, instead of focusing on a school’s prestige, MacPhee noted. They should also teach them coping skills such as managing their money and time, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and perhaps most important of all, getting enough sleep.

“Talk to your children about the social and emotional side of going to college, such as how to deal with potential conflicts with a roommate, and how to deal with loneliness, which can be a normal part of the transition from high school to college,” said MacPhee.

If a student has some kind of physical or mental health issue, such as substance abuse or an eating disorder, parents should help arrange a care plan at college before the student starts. “Just as parents ask about academics and internships, they should also understand what kind of mental health services are available, and how the school supports students,” he said.

The Jed and Clinton Health Health Matters program works directly with about 100 schools to assess and improve mental health services on campus. “A lot of schools are doing a good job—the key is for parents to help their students feel comfortable reaching out for services if they are struggling,” MacPhee said.

Schools can always do a better job of communicating and promoting the availability of counseling services for students who are struggling, he said. “They can educate their faculty, coaches, RAs and anyone else in a position to recognize someone in distress, and direct the students to help. It’s about promoting a culture of help-seeking, and owning it as a campuswide issue.”

The Jed Foundation will offer an online resource in early 2016 that will help students, parents and school administrators prepare for the transition to college. The resource will help students develop basic life skills and build social-emotional competencies, learn the fundamentals of mental health and substance abuse, and navigate the transition.

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    Barbara Wilson

    October 15, 2015 at 12:51 PM

    I want to know how to help someone who has already tried alcohol and pills. And they like it because it makes them feel better. When they do this they are not angry they are happy and talkative and not drawback like normal. I am scared it will lead to addiction.I

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    Skip Sviokla MD ABAM

    October 14, 2015 at 11:49 AM

    Does this surprise anyone?
    Skip Sviokla MD ABAM

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