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Student Athlete Substance Abuse in Sports: An Unexpected Side Effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many lives, including those of student athletes. According to recent studies, athletes in certain sports are engaging in much higher misuse of opioids than their non-sports counterparts, especially now.

Why Are Student Athletes So Vulnerable to Substance Misuse?

There are several things about being a student athlete that increases their vulnerability to substance misuse, independent of other factors.


The college environment, which is already well-known as a high-risk environment for substance misuse, presents an even greater danger for student athletes at higher risk of injury.

High-Injury Sports

The types of sports in which these students are participating also serve to increase the risk of substance abuse. Football, wrestling, and other sports that carry a high injury risk make it more likely that a student will turn to opioids and other substances for injury pain management.

In a recent study, it was revealed that male student athletes were twice as likely to receive a prescription for painkillers and a staggering four times as likely to misuse those prescriptions.1

No Coverage, High Medical Costs

The lack of insurance coverage, along with the high cost of surgery can result in prescription or other substances being the only affordable means of managing pain.

Pressure to Perform

Whether placed on an individual student from an outside source or by the student themselves, being an elite college athlete can be accompanied by incredibly high pressure to perform and “play through the pain.”

Therefore, a high number of students will misuse substances like opioids to mask their pain and provide a feeling of greater focus.

Lack of Return-to-Play Plan

The lack of a return-to-play plan can also significantly increase the risk of substance misuse among student athletes. Time for healing is needed after every injury or the student risks more chronic and painful injuries down the road.

Therefore, a plan for each injured athlete that includes re-injury prevention, education on the importance of rest and healing, and support from teams, coaches, and medical professionals who all communicate for the benefit of the student is largely lacking.

How Prevalent Is Substance Abuse Among Student Athletes?

A 2013 study on the prevalence of substance abuse among student athletes revealed several statistics on the topic:

  • An increase in participation in interscholastic sports among adolescents between 1994 and 2013 was noted.
  • As well, it was estimated that seven and a half million public high school students in the U.S. were participating in interscholastic sports, and that nearly two million injuries were occurring each year among high school students participating in a sport.
  • When asked about prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone, it was admitted by 15.2% of students that they had used these drugs non-medically in the past year.
  • Controlled medication prescriptions for adolescents at ambulatory medical centers nearly doubled between 1994 and 2007.2

It’s important to reiterate that all of the contributing factors to substance use among student athletes existed well before the current conditions.

How Is COVID-19 Compounding the Problem of Rising Substance Abuse Among Student Athletes?

COVID-19 is compounding the problem of substance abuse among student athletes in several ways.

Lack of Physical Activity

Many students are not currently able to physically attend school, but this means they are also unable to engage in training. In addition, local restrictions may be prohibiting them from participating in sports outside of school. This has led many student athletes to experience intense stress and depression.

Uncertainty About the Future

The sudden uncertainty faced by students with regard to various situations relating to the virus (closures, quarantines, stay-at-home orders, etc.) were and continue to be common stressors that, for many student athletes, has led to increased substance abuse, whether out of boredom or the need to self-medicate.

No Access to Counseling

Another contributor is that those student athletes who were receiving counseling at school pre-virus are no longer able to do so and may not be able to for an undetermined period of time.

This lack of psychological support, combined with increased anxiety and depression, is contributing to attempts to self-medicate with various substances.

No Awareness of Addiction Dangers

As well, students who abused substances may not have been aware of the addictive qualities in those substances, or the seriousness of ingesting them in high doses. In the case of opiate painkillers, which are highly addictive in low doses, not being aware of the addictive qualities can quickly cause addiction to develop.

Lack of Addiction Education

The general lack of education with regard to addiction and how it develops is yet another contributor. A student may not be aware that, once the brain becomes dependent on a substance, it’s far harder to stop using that substance.

As such, they may be engaging in substance abuse without realizing they’re placing themselves at significant risk.

When Should a College Athlete Seek Help?

There are several warning signs that dependence on a substance or an addiction to it is developing. It’s important to monitor yourself for these signs and, if you’re experiencing any of them, to seek treatment as soon as possible:

  • Becoming irritable when you can’t access a substance
  • Experiencing strong cravings
  • Hiding your substance use from loved ones
  • Stealing, lying, or breaking the law in order to obtain a substance
  • Trying to control or limit your use, but being unable to
  • The intense highs you get from a substance are followed by sudden and intense feelings of depression or listlessness
  • You need higher doses of a substance in order to get the same effect
  • Your life is structured around how and where you will obtain and use a substance

You may also be experiencing withdrawal symptoms without realizing it. These are also warning signs of addiction and can manifest themselves as:

  • Sleeping problems
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Damp skin
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Seizures

Any of the above can become very serious without warning, which is another reason to seek immediate treatment.3

What to Look For in an Addiction Treatment Center

Before beginning your search for addiction treatment centers, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions. First, do you feel that you will be able to live at home while you receive addiction treatment? If not, you may benefit most from a location that offers residential treatment and around-the-clock monitoring.

If you are worried about being safe while trying to detox on your own, then a treatment center that offers medically assisted detox services is likely going to be your safest option.

Any treatment center you choose should be highly rated for their staff, methods, and accommodations offered.

Top-Rated Addiction Treatment in Orange County

Substance addiction among student athletes is rising for many reasons. The good news is that addiction is a treatable disease that can be overcome. Adelante Recovery Center offers detox, inpatient, and residential addiction treatment programs.

Our clients benefit from a peaceful and relaxing environment, and our holistic approach to treatment addresses the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of addiction. You’ll also benefit from the latest detoxification techniques, which are administered in a safe and monitored setting.

All of the treatments we offer are administered by an expert staff who make your health, wellbeing, and sobriety their top priority. You will also receive valuable education, which will provide you with the necessary tools to not only achieve sobriety but avoid future relapse.

You can learn more about our treatment center by speaking with an addiction specialist. Call (949) 427-9099 today.


  1. https://www.ajmc.com/view/5-things-about-opioid-abuse-among-athletes
  2. https://misuse.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/error/abuse.shtml
  3. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/signs-of-drug-addiction

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