Students are self-medicating to cope with their mental health. Here are the shocking figures
A Tab survey of 4,000 students reveals what students are taking the most, and at which unis
Almost three quarters of university students have self-medicated by turning to drugs or alcohol when struggling with their mental health.
Self-medicating is any attempt to deal with stress, anxiety or other mental health issues using substances. For many students and young people, taking substances, either socially or alone, provides an escape from their worries.
Students have struggled through years of lockdowns at uni, only to come out the other side into a cost of living crisis and huge pressures to secure a grad job. And to cope with these, among other things, many are turning to drugs or alcohol.
The Tab asked 4,000 students at unis all around the country about their experiences with mental health at university for our 2022/23 Mental Health Survey. You Matter is The Tab’s annual campaign dedicated to highlighting the student mental health crisis.
Just over a quarter – 26 per cent – of students across the UK said they have never self-medicated with drugs or alcohol, meaning that 74 per cent have turned to these substances when struggling with their mental health.
We asked students if they have ever self-medicated with drugs or alcohol – and if so, what? This is what they said:
There are marked differences in this across universities, however. 82 per cent of both Leeds and Oxford Brookes students said they have self-medicated with drugs or alcohol, along with 81 per cent of Bristol students and 78 per cent of both Newcastle and Manchester students.
At the other end of the scale, Lancaster students reported self-medicating with drugs and alcohol the least – but still, just under two-thirds of them (61 per cent) said they have. This was followed by 67 per cent of Warwick students and 68 per cent of both Exeter and Glasgow students.
The full breakdown of students who said they have self-medicated with drugs or alcohol, broken down by university:
We have only included individual unis if over 100 of their students responded to The Tab’s Student Mental Health Survey – students from all other universities have been grouped together. The Tab surveyed students at more than 30 unis around the UK, including all of the Russell Group.
“This really tragic snapshot of more than 4,000 students reflects clearly how two years of the pandemic has adversely affected the mental health of university students”, Helena Conibear, CEO of the Alcohol Education Trust, a charity which works keep young people safe around alcohol and other substances, told The Tab. “Of huge concern is the turning of those students to alcohol or drugs such as cannabis, ket, cocaine or MDMA to self medicate.”
The individual substance the most students reported ever self-medicating with was alcohol – with 41 per cent of students at all universities reporting doing so, rising to 46 per cent of students at both York and Oxford Brookes unis.
22-year-old Grace* is currently having a year out from Bristol Uni, after her mental health caused her to suspend her studies at the end of second year. She told The Tab she “used to just sit alone in [her] room and drink” when she was feeling particularly down. “Having a few drinks would just take the edge off how I was feeling and would also help me sleep better because I wasn’t sleeping well at the time”.
Grace didn’t suspend her studies because of the alcohol, but because it “was just the right decision at the time in general”, after wanting to drop out but her personal tutor telling her about the option to instead suspend her studies. She’s been able to focus on herself more and get the help she needed, and is “definitely drinking less”. “At uni you’re surrounded by such a drinking culture that it’s easy to get lost in it”, she says. “Nice to have gotten away from that.”
Whilst alcohol is the single substance students say they are self-medicating with the most, students on the whole said they turn to drugs more than alcohol – with a combined 55 per cent saying they have ever self-medicated with weed, ketamine, cocaine, MDMA, hallucinogenics, nitrous oxide, xanax or speed.
Dan*, a 21-year-old Sheffield Hallam student, told The Tab that when his mental health is at its worst he “can’t switch off” and knows that “alcohol makes this worse”, so instead smokes weed. “It allows my brain a moment to take a break and remove myself from the scenario making me anxious or depressed”, he said.
Like Dan, over a fifth (21 per cent) of students have self-medicated with cannabis, rising to almost a third (29 per cent) of Bristol students.
21-year-old Uni of Brighton student Milo struggles with depression. “I’d used drugs before uni but never in the way I do now”, they told The Tab. It started off occasionally, inviting people round to smoke weed, but “the happy feeling of numbness is nice so it descended into me smoking every day and looking for something better, like shrooms.”
“That feeling of being anywhere but in the present when you’re struggling is like a huge relief”, Milo says. “Luckily I have a good support system with friends [who helped] me realise it was a problem and now I’ve got it back down to smoking occasionally. But when I’m having a rough patch I definitely smoke to make it better.”
Sheffield Hallam student Mel, 20, smokes weed to help her social anxiety, which she says makes her “mind usually at 1,000 per cent, very fast and panicky”, and finds that smoking helps her “calm down and forget”. In particular, Mel told The Tab the pressure to get a job “makes up the most of [her] stress” and she struggles to relax when it’s on her mind – but weed helps her to.
A further 10 per cent of students have self-medicated with ketamine, with 16 per cent of students at Oxford Brookes and Newcastle unis reporting doing so. And nine per cent of all students have self-medicated with cocaine, rising to 17 per cent of Newcastle students.
Tom*, a 23-year-old Newcastle student, spoke to The Tab about his experience with ket, mostly during lockdowns whilst at uni. “We all got ketty to escape the fact that eight of us were locked up in a gaff with tiny rooms, lots of work and house rats”, he said. “[We’d] get spangled to the point [you’ve] got no idea what’s what to try and clear one’s head.”
Tom says ket was “a bit of a relief, and it’s not great but got all of us through it because you’re not thinking about any of the other shit going on for a night. Also in a weird way [it] opens your mind to other things that being sober doesn’t, like the size of your problems in the grand scheme of things”, he says.
The full breakdown, by university, of what students are turning to the most when struggling with their mental health:
“Alcohol or drugs are never the answer to poor mental health”, the Alcohol Education Trust’s Helena Conibear told The Tab, “and will only temporarily mask symptoms before a person experiences a greater low than before and the issues will still be there or worse post use. Alcohol and cannabis are both depressants of the nervous system themselves and if combined with anti-depressants can cause confusion, drowsiness and make symptoms worse.
“Our own survey of second year students at university showed that the two biggest challenges they faced were loneliness on leaving home and then pressure to drink more than they wanted or to take drugs. What we know helps counter anxiety, loneliness and feeling unable to cope are keeping active through joining clubs, hobbies, sport, enjoying nature, volunteering and talking openly to staff, friends or family. Unis are investing hugely in wellbeing staff and support for mental health and issues about problematic alcohol or drug use, so always ask for local support on campus.”
*Some names have been changed to protect students’ privacy
For honest information about drugs, go to the FRANK website or you can call FRANK anytime on 0300 123 6600 for confidential advice. You can also find advice on the Alcohol Education Trust’s Life Stuff website.
If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, Calm (Campaign against living miserably) on 0800 58 58 58, and Student Minds online here. You matter.
The Tab’s You Matter campaign is dedicated to highlighting the student mental health crisis. If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]
Related stories recommended by this writer:
• Two thirds of students have felt loneliness at uni. These are their stories
• We asked nine boys about a time they worked through some unhappiness
• 18,000 of you took part, these are the UK unis that are most hooked on Elf Bars