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Understanding Student-Athlete Substance Misuse

NCAA Gen Rx profile

Written by: Laura K. Farleman, PharmD. Candidate 2018, Cedarville University School of Pharmacy, NCAA Division II Track and Field Student-Athlete, Division II National Student-Athlete Advisory Committee Representative

Disclaimer: What is included in this blog is the opinion of the individual writing the blog and does not explicitly represent the thoughts or opinions of the NCAA.


When you consider substance misuse within collegiate athletics, often alcohol consumption is what first comes to mind. And while this is the substance that is most often misused by college athletes, I believe the biggest contributor to student-athlete substance misuse is misconception. Student-athletes aren’t always aware of what substance misuse entails and are not as well informed about the effects of the substances they ingest. As a result, they may ingest substances without considering the potential side effects and/or consequences of use.

I believe it is essential for student-athletes to know the dangers involved with substance use, aside from misuse or abuse. As student athletes, we need to know more about the substances we ingest in order to make educated decisions. Ultimately, we are legally held responsible for what we put into our bodies.

What within the student-athlete experience may contribute to substance misuse such as alcohol or prescription? Student-athletes often face excessive pressures related to academic and athletic pursuits. Stressors that student-athletes typically face more often and to a greater degree than their collegiate peers include: time demands, sleep deprivation, relationships with coaches and scheduling missed classes/exams. Other pressures stem from self-imposed and coach derived expectations regarding academic and/or athletic performance. According to Mind, Body and Sport, an NCAA publication seeking to provide insight and support for student-athlete mental wellness, over 30 percent of college students reported feeling depressed in the last 12 months, with 50 percent reporting overwhelming anxiety. Further, student-athletes appear to be less likely to seek help or receive mental health services when dealing with these stressors.[1]

For example, looking at overall trends in the past several years, we find that student-athletes report higher rates of heavy episodic drinking (binge drinking) than other students on campus (4+ drinks for women, and 5+ drinks for men). Additionally, a higher percentage of student-athletes are prescribed narcotics for pain management than the general student body according to Mind, Body and Sport.[2] This information alone emphasizes the importance of developing means to address the perceptions of substance misuse within the student-athlete environment.

Add in mental factors associated with injury and recovery, and you will quickly realize why it is important to emphasize tools and resources regarding substance misuse specific to the collegiate athletic environment. Campuses should prioritize creating an environment where talking about substance misuse is comfortable and acceptable. Additional efforts should be made to provide better access to resources such as the Resource Exchange Center (REC), provided by the NCAA. REC serves to give student-athletes access to authoritative information regarding supplements, medications and banned drugs. The development of tools and resources such as a student-athlete Generation Rx initiative, targeting prescription drug abuse within the student-athlete environment, is essential. I believe the development of such resources will play a critical role in protecting the health and safety of student-athletes long after they leave the collegiate environment.


[1] Davoren AK, Hwang S. Depression and anxiety prevalence in student-athletes. In: Hainline B, Kroshus E, Wilfert M, eds. Mind, body, and sport understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness. 1st ed. NCAA; 2014:38-39.

[2] Hainline B, Bell L, Wilfert M. Substance use and abuse. In: Hainline B, Kroshus E, Wilfert M, eds. Mind, body, and sport understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness. 1st ed. NCAA; 2014:40-45.

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