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IBX Insights

Addressing Substance Use Among College Students

Four college students leave a lecture hall

College years are an exciting time of new-found freedom and self-discovery. However, adjusting to college life can be challenging, and the pressure to fit in can lead to risky behaviors.

During the past decade, rates of substance use and overdose have increased among college students. Cannabis, stimulants, alcohol, and other substances are now common on most campuses.

Students who use these substances tend to have lower academic performance. But substance use has consequences beyond the classroom. Students who regularly use substances are more likely to have difficulty finding employment after graduation. And many find it hard to maintain healthy personal relationships.

Substance use frequently stems from anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. The first time many young people experience these issues is in college, where the pressure to succeed and be independent can be overwhelming. When students turn to substances to help them cope, they may not anticipate the side effects or risk of addiction.

A Safe Space for Support

The Independence Blue Cross Foundation (IBX Foundation)* has partnered with the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) to develop stigma-free programs to help college students explore recovery from substance use. To date, the IBX Foundation has committed over $1 million to support this important initiative.

With the IBX Foundation’s support, 15 Collegiate Recovery Programs have been established or expanded across the region, making Pennsylvania the national leader in the number of Collegiate Recovery Programs.

Holy Family University is one of the schools that receives support from the IBX Foundation. Led by Pat McElwaine, Psy.D., LPC, the Collegiate Recovery Program at Holy Family University provides a stigma-free space where students can address campus pressures, addiction, and mental health, all of which can be intertwined.

For McElwaine, supporting students means meeting them where they are. “Support does not mean telling someone what is right or wrong,” he says. Holy Family’s counseling center builds trust by creating a safe space where students can find support without judgment.

McElwaine sees himself as leading by example. He began his recovery journey 14 years ago. “I got here by accident. I turned to substances at a young age and got myself stuck in bad habits. When I realized how my actions were affecting those around me, I decided to make a change. It wasn’t easy, but that process got me to where I am, helping students through similar circumstances.”

A Culture of Conversation

If you suspect your child is struggling with substance use, try to create a culture of open conversation without judgment. Letting them know you care about their health and well-being can give them a sense of safety. McElwaine suggests showing support by:

  • Asking about their substance use to try to understand their feelings and stressors.
  • Sharing your own mental health challenges and how you manage them.
  • Connecting them to a support system, such as a campus facility, community group, or treatment center.

People affected by substance use can feel forgotten. While addiction may consume a person’s life, it can be invisible to others — even those closest to them. The stigma around substance use makes it difficult for many people to ask for support. Talking honestly about mental health and substance use can encourage those struggling in silence to become part of the conversation, seek help, and embrace recovery.

If You Need Help

If you or someone you know needs support, call the 24-Hour Crisis Intervention Service Helpline at 215-686-4420 or call or text the new 988. For more information about mental health and where to find help, visit

*The IBX Foundation is a separate, independently operated charitable foundation.
IBX Insights Team

The IBX Insights Team is here to provide tips on using your health insurance and living a healthy life.