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Study identifies five themes providing insight into college students’ perceptions of links between substance use and mental health

While it has been agreed upon among researchers that mental health concerns and substance use are often interrelated, it is unclear whether university students understand this connection. A new study explored college student’s perceived links between substance use and mental health. Participants (N = 24) attended a private university and participated in three semi-structured focus groups. The authors used standard guidelines for thematic analysis as their analytic technique. This included studying all data items, generating organizational codes, identifying and reviewing themes, and defining and naming themes. Results indicated that participants reported five themes along with several subthemes regarding how substance use and mental health can be related. The themes and subthemes are as follows. (1) Students use substances to cope with mental health issues, (2) substance use can lead to mental health issues, (3) links between mental health and substance use are cyclical, and (4) substance use is an aspect or indicator of mental health, (5) substance use and mental health are not always linked. The subthemes for theme 1 include (a) using substances to cope is normative (i.e., students agreed that drinking alcohol and using other substances was a normal part of college life and was bound to happen due to the stressors that they face in college), (b) using substances to cope is easy (i.e., students explained the widespread use of substances to cope is rising due to ease of access), and (c) using substances to cope is effective (i.e., students noted that substances are sometimes used as an adaptive coping behavior). The subthemes for theme 2 include (a) substance use increases vulnerability for mental health issues (i.e., students defined ways in which substance use could precipitate a mental health problem or exacerbate an existing problem), (b) substance use can lead to addiction (i.e., students expressed concerns about how substance use that was currently not problematic could lead to substance use disorders), and (c) substance use amplifies negative emotions (i.e., students reported instances where alcohol reduced their ability to cope with emotions or hindered their control over their emotions).

Take away: Through conducting focus group discussions with college students, this study identified five themes regarding college students’ perceived links between substance use and mental health.
Hudson, A., Thompson, K., MacNevin, P. D., Ivany, M., Teehan, M., Stuart, H., & Stewart, S. H. (2018). University Students’ Perceptions of Links Between Substance Use and Mental Health: A Qualitative Focus Group Study. Emerging Adulthood, 2167696817748106.

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