Addiction, Health, Behaviour Change | CGL

Taking The Hit: a student's response

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Taking The Hit: a student's response

1 May 2018

Last week, NUS and Release published research on student drug use and higher education institution policies around this topic. This is, to my knowledge, the first national piece of work on this and I was lucky enough to help Release with some of the research. The full report, which can be read here, highlights many areas of concern and gives details of drugs of choice and situations that students may be likely to use drugs – challenging a lot of stereotypical views in the process.

The reason I’m writing this for Change Grow Live, is because I see a lot of space for change and I don’t think we are anywhere close to where we could be with supporting students who use drugs – or even those who don’t for that matter; without credible organisations putting their weight behind this report, its findings and recommendations, Universities will not see this as crucial work to be done. I currently work in a HE students’ union so understand the importance of higher education in shifting the rhetoric around drug use and developing future leaders. Widening the debate, and encouraging students to speak up, is vital to bring about the change we so desperately need.

While the report presents worrying statistics about the relationship between students and drugs, what I think is more concerning is the context that these statistics live. Students do not exist in a vacuum, and yet discussions around drug use, drinking or housing often talk about ‘students’ as another species. University students may use drugs, that shouldn’t surprise you, but we must remember that so do an approximated 33% of the general population. Just over half the respondents to the survey had used drugs and while the report acknowledges this was not a proportional study, as the title is likely to have been more appealing to those students who do use drugs, it is clear to see that yes, there are students who use drugs. So what now?

Widening the debate, and encouraging students to speak up, is vital to bring about the change we so desperately need.

Student mental health

The prevalence and increase of mental health conditions among student populations has been well documented, with the Institute for Public Policy Research last year stating that there’s been a fivefold increase in disclosures of mental health issues by students, and that these issues are high in comparison to other section of the population and YouGov in 2016 saying that ¼ of students experience mental health problems, but what no one seems to talk about is how this connects with those who use drugs. 22% of respondents that used drugs said did so to self medicate for an existing mental health problem, and 31% to cope with stress. This alone paints a troubling picture – is this really the best way for our younger generation to be coping? Are services so stretched that students don’t feel capable of asking for support? Do long waiting lists for university service stop students seeking help?

The report also highlights that ‘students from liberation groups were particularly likely to name issues linked to mental health as motivation for taking drugs’, giving the example that LGBT+ students were more likely to say they used drugs to self medicate than their heterosexual peers and that similar could be seen when looking at gender and disability. It also shows that these groups were also more likely to report a positive impact on their health from drug use. This raises more questions about the equality impact of university support and policies – do these disproportionately negatively impact minority groups? If drug use is stopped what is there to support these oppressed groups? Drug policy as a whole already impacts certain groups more than others, and this leads to me wondering whether the same is happening in our universities.

Information, advice and support

We often have the difficult conversation of recreational vs. problematic use, and I think what’s highlighted by the report is that there should be more, better quality information for students to access instead of simply signposting Talk To Frank. Signposting should include harm reduction advice for those who don’t feel they use drugs problematically, it should point to legal advice for any student who may need it and to appropriate support services for those students who choose to access support – taking into account the age range and other demographics of the student body. Only 11% of respondents had accessed advice and information, and only 46% knew where to access advice if they needed it – this leaves a lot of students who are unaware of where to find help if they ever did need it. 74% of students who used drugs said they did so for the social experience – if that alone isn’t enough to push for good harm reduction on campus I don’t know what is. Universities and SU’s should be supporting the work of organisations like The Loop, promoting it on campus and where possible going further and actually having the ability to test onsite.​

Only 11% of respondents had accessed advice and information, and only 46% knew where to access advice if they needed it.

Do disciplinary policies work?

151 universities were examined for this report, and some interesting themes came out, firstly that Universities tend to deal with drug use (or misuse) with disciplinary action. I’m not sure if this was surprising or not, but 16% of universities actually incorrectly stated that use of a drug was illegal, either instead of, or in addition to mentioning possession and supply. 52% of the full sample also stated that they could discipline students for drug use, therefore they are able to initiate disciplinary action for behaviour which doesn’t even constitute a criminal offence. This is worrying for so many reasons, the foremost of which, why on earth would a student trust their university to provide good support and guidance if they can’t event read the basics of the MoDA? The most alarming statistic was that at least 2,067 students were accused of drug related misconduct in the last academic year. Over ¼ of those students were reported directly to the police by their university and 21 were permanently excluded, blocking them from gaining qualifications. 

47% of respondents felt as though their institution shouldn’t punish students for drug use, and this voice needs to be heard. Instead, just this weekend, we hear about the Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham planning on making his university the “first drug-free university” in Britain. Prohibition and zero tolerance policies are short sighted and simply don’t work, and yet our universities are feeding into this problem instead of showing themselves as the progressive institutions they could be. This is why it’s important for Students’ Unions to start this discussion, and this needs to include all the voices that are impacted – especially making sure those from marginalised groups are involved as they may be disproportionately affected.

Now is the time that students, university staff and experts must come together to widen the discussion and show senior management that progressive change is not only recommended, but essential.

Read the full report >

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