Prescription drugs and alcohol do not mix. Neither do alcohol abuse and mental illness. Yet the two often are linked.
The combination of alcoholism and depression is referred to as coexisting, or comorbid, conditions.
Emily, a graduate student in her first year at Penn State, suffered from a lack of focus in high school. It coincided with her increasing drinking habits, in part because she felt like she “chronically didn’t fit in” with her peers.
“Drinking is something that just happens,” she said. “I somehow saw it as a solution to not being comfortable in my own skin.”
“And when I did drink for the first time and got intoxicated, I felt OK. It turned off my head, and I sort of chased that feeling of comfortable in my own skin. It was the only time I felt comfortable in my own skin.”
Emily, who is 33, committed to a sober path in high school and spent her undergraduate years in alcohol recovery. She asked that her full name not be used because she is in a recovery program.
The turning point came, she said, “When I had all these dreams that I wanted to accomplish and started to see those dreams slipping away and being OK with it.”
Yet, even a decade into sobriety, she said, “There are still times when I feel down ... but when I work on those things, the depression goes away.”
Depression, in fact, shows up as the second-biggest concern of students who seek help at their college counseling centers, according to clinicians surveyed for the 2014 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, a research project at Penn State.
The clinicians at 140 participating counseling centers noted the top concerns of more than 25,000 students. Anxiety, at 19.6 percent, ranked highest, followed by depression at 15.6 percent.
The same mental health report found that a certain portion of college students recognize their drinking or drug use has become a problem. About 79,600 students at college counseling centers were asked if they “felt the need to reduce your alcohol or drug use.” While 73 percent said no, nearly 27 percent said yes.
At Penn State, the drinking culture has become even more deeply embedded.
The latest Penn State Pulse report — a study of self-reported alcohol use among students — indicates that since 2011 heavy drinkers have almost doubled, from 4.6 percent of respondents to 8.1 percent. Those reporting themselves as moderate drinkers rose from 38.6 to 44.2 percent.
The Pulse report, conducted every semester, was most recently released last spring and was taken by 873 students with a plus or minus 3.27 percent confidence interval.
“Drinking is an act of patriotism at a certain level,” said Jason Whitney, program coordinator of the Penn State Collegiate Recovery Community. “Getting drunk and cheering on your football team is a way of showing your undying devotion for your cause, for your university.”
Whitney said depression, like a drinking problem, runs on a continuum.
“There are bouts of depression and then there’s clinical depression,” he said. “Then there’s problem drinking, and then there’s full-blown alcoholism. It’s hard to know necessarily where a student is on that continuum, especially when they’re experiencing some problems in both areas.”
State College-native Kris Kollman, 28, has been familiar with the party culture in his hometown for years, getting his first taste of the party lifestyle as early as his junior year in high school.
“People talk about how they come here for four years and it’s a partying stop,” he said. “Well, that party just doesn’t end if you’re from here.”
The returning adult student said he didn’t become a heavy drinker until about his senior year in high school.
“Whenever I was depressed, I didn’t want to deal with life,” Kollman said. “I wanted to escape it so I would drink, and I would drink every day.”
Alcoholism sometimes takes time to recognize as many factors can contribute to it, including biological predisposition, said Mary Anne Knapp, a clinical social worker and senior staff therapist at Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
Following a family member’s manic episode, Kollman was advised to get tested: He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
When he was self-medicating, Kollman said he often found small reasons to drink, ranging from consoling himself from a bad day at work to celebrating a good day.
“To go to sleep I would have to drink a 12-pack,” he said. “It was my remedy for any situation.”
Penn State has two resources for students with alcohol problems.
The Collegiate Recovery Community helps students in recovery from alcohol and other drug addictions. Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS), at University Health Services, is mandatory for students with first-time alcohol violations or who have had alcohol-related visits to the Mount Nittany Medical Center emergency room.
“BASICS is a program that provides evaluation about a person’s drinking,” Knapp said. “The CRC is for people who want to stop altogether.”
Marley Paul is a Penn State journalism student.
Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a six-part series on mental health on campus. The series was produced by students in Penn State’s College of Communications.