Graduation: What is the Link Between Education and Substance Abuse?

Substance Abuse

Graduation: What is the Link Between Education and Substance Abuse?

Inaccurate stereotypes of any kind are harmful, and those that perpetuate the negative stigma of addiction only further damage efforts to reduce substance abuse rates in this country and improve access to effective treatment for individuals of all ages and walks of life. For instance, it is a commonly-held belief that individuals addicted to drugs or alcohol, as a whole, are poor, homeless, unemployed and uneducated, and many people are of the opinion that addiction is an affliction of the lazy or weak-willed. Instead, research shows that, while substance abuse is, in fact, more common among individuals of lower economic status, or those living in poverty, the two aren’t directly linked, nor do they prove a cause and effect relationship. Rather, substance abuse is merely a byproduct of the lifestyle led by people of limited financial means. That being said, in most cases, a person’s propensity towards drug abuse and addiction is multifaceted, influenced by other factors, like education, genetics, and parental substance abuse. Below you’ll find more information about the link between education and substance abuse, and how to get professional help for someone struggling with a substance abuse disorder.

What Makes Someone an Addict?

There are a great number of factors that influence an individual’s propensity towards addiction, including, but not limited to, genetics, mental health, parental substance abuse, a history of abuse or neglect, socioeconomic status and level of education, and the latter two are perhaps the most hotly debated of these influences. It can be said that the risk factors that predispose certain people to substance abuse are less prevalent in higher-income families and among individuals with a higher level of education. However, that isn’t to say that wealthy people are immune to substance abuse and addiction – they most certainly are not – only that these issues are less likely to occur in households that aren’t living at or below the poverty level. Whatever factors that influence their addiction, what makes someone an addict is their compulsive desire to use drugs or alcohol despite negative consequences caused by the substance abuse, such as job loss, financial difficulties or strained relationships with friends and loved ones.

Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

It can be difficult to recognize the signs of substance abuse in a loved one, especially if that person has become practiced at hiding his or her addiction from friends and family members, which is often the case regardless of a person’s income or level of education. The following are some common physical and behavioral signs of substance abuse to watch out for:


  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Involuntary shaking
  • Chills and sweating
  • Dilated pupils
  • Decreased coordination
  • Anxiety
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Slowed reaction time


  • Lack of interest in clothing or grooming
  • Sudden requests for money without a reasonable explanation
  • Unexpected weight loss or gain
  • Frequently missing work or school
  • A sudden drop in grades or work performance
  • Being secretive about where he or she is going
  • Stealing or borrowing money from loved ones
  • Drastic changes in relationships with family and friends
  • Lack of energy or motivation

Link Between Education and Substance Abuse

The link between education and substance abuse is an uncertain one. According to one survey comparing high school seniors from 1981 and 1986, seniors of all economic backgrounds in 1986 were using drugs less than seniors in 1981. What was most notable about the survey though, was that the most significant decline (13%) was among students whose parents had some graduate education, while the least significant decline (2.7%) was among students whose parents did not attend high school. In another study involving more than 30,000 men and women between the ages of 20 and 93, researchers measured education level, alcohol use, obesity and smoking, and found that those with the lowest level of education were most frequently heavy drinkers, heavy smokers, obese, and physically inactive.

As a general rule, education helps people develop accurate perceptions of risk and learn the skills necessary to keep themselves safe and out of serious trouble. High school students, for example, are taught basic information about their health and well-being that helps them recognize the serious health implications of abusing alcohol and drugs. An individual with a higher education may also have access to early intervention and prevention resources that allow them to avoid problem drinking or drug use. In one study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that “Individuals who had dropped out of high school were 6.34 times more likely to develop alcohol abuse or dependence than were individuals with a college degree.” On the other side of the same coin, researchers have also found a strong association between early substance abuse and lower levels of educational attainment, meaning that teens and young adults who become dependent on alcohol or drugs are less likely to finish college than those who don’t use alcohol or drugs until later in life and never become dependent.

Substance Abuse Among Business Executives

It should also be noted that there is opposing research suggesting that individuals with a higher education are actually the ones who are more prone to addiction, and statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse seem to support that finding, reporting that, by the time individuals reach their senior year of high school, almost 70% will have tried alcohol, 50% will have abused an illicit drug, nearly 40% will have smoked a cigarette, and 20% will have used a prescription drug recreationally, and this behavior only continues into college. In this line of thinking, the higher an individual’s education, the more likely they are to abuse drugs or alcohol, either because they make more money and have the disposable income to support this type of habit, or because they are under a great deal of stress at work and drugs or alcohol become their escape. In fact, according to a 2015 Gallup poll, “upper-income and highly educated Americans are more likely than other Americans to say they drink alcohol,” and individuals earning more than $75,000 per year drink more alcohol than any other economic group. Another study conducted by a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Medicine in 2013, even went so far as to suggest that the very personality traits that make business executives so successful – their determination, drive and risk-taking and novelty-seeking behavior – are the same personality traits of an addict.

Seeking Treatment for Substance Abuse

It’s possible that individuals who drop out of high school and those who enter college but fail to earn a degree may be at increased risk for a substance use disorder. Still, it’s important to understand that a low education level is not a definite indicator of substance abuse. The majority of people who are not highly-educated do not go on to abuse drugs and alcohol. However, it’s possible that a lack of education, in combination with any number of other contributing factors, may predispose certain individuals to substance abuse and addiction. Whatever factors play a role in an individual’s addiction disorder, seeking treatment at a professional rehab facility can significantly improve the chances of lasting recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, call today to speak to the substance abuse recovery counselors at Behavioral Rehabilitation Services about your treatment options.

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