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Substance Misuse Prevention for College Students Spans the Pre-K-12 Years

By Sarah Johnson, Training and Technical Assistance Coordinator, New England Prevention Technology Transfer Center

During the last two years, COVID-19 has caused many students to experience increased uncertainty about the future, family financial insecurity, social isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Students have transitioned from middle to high school, and high school to secondary education without the traditional markers of change such as college visits, freshman days, and celebrations like prom and graduation. Students in transitional time periods are in a more vulnerable place for substance use and misuse when they don’t have supportive events, programs, and people to help them move from one period in their lives to another.

Research conducted early during the COVID pandemic has linked increased drinking to attempts to cope with stress. Researchers are concerned that a potential spike in alcohol use disorder could be a consequence. In June of 2020, Czeisler et al. (2020) reported that nearly 1 in 4 (24.7%) respondents ages 18 to 24 years said that they had started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions linked to the pandemic. In a 2019, pre-pandemic survey, 53% of full-time students reported alcohol use and 33% reported ‘high-intensity use in the last month’—demonstrating that high use and misuse of alcohol was a concern before college students turned to this unhealthy coping mechanism (SAMHSA, 2020). Knowing that substance misuse is on the rise, especially in this vulnerable group who have had two very abnormal transitional years, what can be done?

Prevention programming at the Pre-K-12 level is an important step towards preventing substance misuse later in life. Educating administrators and teachers about substance use prevention strategies, curricula, and programs is an essential step toward helping young people develop healthy coping strategies. There are many ways schools can partner with prevention professions to provide developmentally appropriate knowledge about substance misuse to students and their families throughout their academic career.

Seek Reputable Resources

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA, n.d.a) has information on alcohol use among this population, including opportunities to learn about the issues, trends, and solutions that work. For example, “the CollegeAIM—the College Alcohol Intervention Matrix—is an easy-to-use and comprehensive booklet and website to help schools identify effective alcohol interventions” (NIAAA, n.d.b). SAMHSA (2019) also has a Substance Misuse Prevention for Young Adults guide that “supports health care providers, systems, and communities seeking to prevent substance misuse among young adults.” It describes relevant research findings, examines emerging and best practices, identifies knowledge gaps and implementation challenges, and offers useful resources.

Get Parents Involved

As their children make a big transition into college and in the first few years of college, parents can play a crucial role in encouraging their children to make healthier choices around substance use. Parental involvement and family norms and values are strong protective factors against alcohol misuse. Educators can support parents by including tip sheets, facts, and strategies for parental support against substance misuse in newsletters and on school websites. Consider including some of these resources when talking with families about preventing substance misuse:

Encourage COVID-safe Gatherings

These can reduce feelings of loneliness and encourage connection without the use of alcohol or other substances. These could include outdoor activities, internet gaming, masked and vaccinated gatherings, “pod” gatherings of people within the same small circle such as dorm rooms or sports teams, and themed Zoom hangouts.

Provide Access to Mental Health and Substance Use Services

Mental health and substance use have always been strongly correlated, and that connection became more apparent during this global pandemic. Making mental health and substance use services available and keeping them available to students during this time and moving forward is paramount.

Encourage Youth to Reach Out to Peers

Students can help reduce substance misuse by reaching out to their friends and peers regarding mental health and substance use. Youth concerned about a friend can seek guidance from student advisors, RAs, and school counselors. For those students in online classes, they can reach out to peers virtually. Validating the difficulty of transitions and education in the current moment and building connection can be helpful and healing.

To provide the most effective substance misuse prevention programming to Pre-K-12 students, schools can partner with community-based organizations to deliver evidence-based curricula and programs. Visit the Prevention Technology Transfer Center’s website to learn more about substance misuse prevention best practices and to connect with community-based organizations doing this work in your region.


Czeisler, M. É., Lane, R. I., Petrosky, E., Wiley, J. F., Christensen, A., Njai, R., Weaver, M. D., Robbins, R., FacerChilds, E. R., Barger, L. K., Czeisler, C. A., Howard, M. E., & Rajaratnam, S. M. W. (2020, August 14). Mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 69(32), 1049–1057.

de Figueiredo, C. S., Sandre, P. C., Portugal, L., Mázala-de-Oliveira, T., da Silva Chagas, L., Raony, Í., Ferreira, E. S., Giestal-de-Araujo, E., Dos Santos, A. A., & Bomfim, P. O. (2021). COVID-19 pandemic impact on children and adolescents' mental health: Biological, environmental, and social factors. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry, 106, 110171.

Koob, G. F. (2021, March 21). Alcohol perils increase for young adults during COVID. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (n.d.a) Homepage. National Institute of Health.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (n.d.b). CollegeAIM alcohol intervention matrix. National Institute of Health.


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