Olivia Hanna investigates why so many students are turning to drugs.
Leaving for college opens the door to a previously unknown world of near freedom; a world in which you are encouraged to march down a bumpy road of self-discovery. For a majority of Irish college students, a stop on this road involves experimentation with recreational drugs and alcohol. From weed to ketamine, vodka to cocaine, some dabble in various drugs, while some leave no stone unturned in their discovery. 
The National Student Drug Survey, conducted in 2015, found that “82pc of Irish students have tried illegal drugs, 98pc have consumed alcohol, 82pc have tried cigarettes or tobacco products and 50pc have tried e-cigarettes”. The top substances reported in the survey were alcohol, cannabis, and ecstasy. On paper, the percentage of students using substances regularly does seem a bit shocking, but considering that drug and alcohol use is around every corner of college life, it isn’t too much of a surprise to us students.
It’s clear from these figures that experimenting with drugs and alcohol is an inevitable element of college life, but why exactly is this so? The NSDS found that the top reasons reported by students for taking drugs and alcohol were for fun, out of curiosity, to “switch off”, boredom, spirituality, availability, deal with difficult emotions/ memories, and social/ peer pressure.
These results were surprising. One would think that some of the lowest scoring reasons - peer pressure, dealing with difficult emotions/ memories, and switching off - would have been the top three reasons.
Whatever the specific reasons for experimenting with drugs, it's understandable that college students may turn to drugs and alcohol. College life is a big change from living at home with mammy and daddy. From the mounting pressure of essays and exams, to the day to day anxieties of laundry and feeding oneself, being self-sufficient is no easy task. Dr. Paul Moriarty, head of student counselling and development at University College Cork (UCC), told The Irish Times that, “The time when you come into university or college, that is when you should expect to find high levels of the first onset of mental distresses, because that’s the age profile. There’s a need to be more aware of that, that it’s normal to experience it far more in a university setting.”
While ‘fun’ is the highest reported reason for taking drugs, it is also highly likely that negative mental health due to the pressures of college and adult life could be leading students to self-medicate.
Mental health has been a contentious issue in colleges around lately, mainly concerning the lack of mental health care and support. In a 2015 article published by the Irish Examiner it was reported that students seeking mental health services at Irish colleges and university increased by 300% between 2007/2008 and 2012/2013. While more students have been seeking services, colleges have not been able to keep up with the demand. Some students who have tried to avail of university resources have had to wait to weeks to see a counsellor or have received advice that they didn’t feel helped with their negative mental health.
Obviously there’s no way to take away the normal stresses that come with college life, and no way to prevent the inevitable practice of experimenting with drugs and alcohol at the brink of adulthood, but it's important to be aware of one’s own reasons for engaging in risky behaviour with substances. 
If you intend on drinking or taking drugs, always make sure you have a friend to help keep you safe, buy drugs from reliable sources, and test any drugs before taking them. Read up on how to stay safe at Drugs.ie!
If you’re thinking about taking drugs and/or alcohol to help negative mental health, try to seek out mental health services from your college or GP, and look for online resources such as ReachOut.ie, Jigsaw.ie, and if things are more serious please call Pieta House (1800 247 247) or Samaritans (116 123).