How To Rock Sobriety in High School and College

Will there be pressure to use drugs and alcohol? Probably. Will you make mistakes? Sure. But being young and sober feels great, and you might be surprised by how many people are doing it

February 24, 2023
High school students at a subway station

“In my day, things were different!” goes the old refrain from the no-longer-young when yakking about Kids Today. It’s become kind of a punchline at this point, but you know what? When it comes to drugs, sobriety and mental health, things actually are different for today’s teenagers and young adults, in both bad ways and good.

Social media has intensified peer pressure, bullying and other sources of insecurity. Casual drug experimentation is more dangerous, with fentanyl tainting recreational drugs. But digital resources and communities can also be a safe haven for young people struggling with substance use or mental health issues. And sobriety is popular with young people — dare we say, even cool.

“No age is too early or too late for the health of the soul,” declared Epicurus, a Greek philosopher 2,300 years ago and a Greek teenager a little before that. Plenty of young people today plainly understand that. Some see living sober as one path.

But let’s not forget being young is hard. For those who go sober, the pressure to use drugs and alcohol can make it even harder. Finding ways to communicate your desire not to use without feeling like you are alienating yourself from others can be difficult. We may be biased, but we think sobriety is a strong choice. It is healthy, worthwhile and, most certainly, it is possible.

Choosing Sobriety as a Young Adult

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, substance use among high schoolers declined significantly during the pandemic. New data for 2022 is encouraging; instead of a bounce back to prepandemic levels, rates remained stable. Nevertheless: There is no shortage of substance use among high schoolers.

  • Slightly more than half of 12th graders reported alcohol use in the past year
  • 31% of 12th graders and 20% of 10th graders had used cannabis in the past year
  • 8% of 12th graders (and 5% of 8th graders) reported non-marijuana illicit drug use, which includes cocaine, heroin, amphetamines and recreational use of prescription opioids

So if you’re a high schooler, some of your peers are using. As you no doubt know. But many are not! If you’re looking to go sober, you’re certainly not alone. Still, if sobriety feels lonely — and it can — there are support systems in place, fellow peers you can count on and counselors who are there to help.

You’re Not Alone: It’s Never Been Better To Be Young and Sober

It’s painful to feel isolated in young adulthood. It is such a social age, which can make things all the more difficult when many social engagements revolve around drugs and alcohol.

The “just say no” approach to substance use in the ’80s and ’90s proved to be an overly simplistic attempt at addressing a complex problem. Today’s young adults need a much more nuanced approach to combating the peer pressures surrounding drug and alcohol use.

Fortunately, there are many resources available that can help young adults struggling to navigate sobriety. Sometimes, you have to be proactive, though — willing to reach out to those willing to help. An example: You feel like you are being pressured into drug or alcohol use, and you don’t like that. In this case, counselors in school or therapists in your community are more than ready to listen, understand and come up with a plan to help you avoid these situations.

We’d be remiss not to mention the many online resources (like the one you’re reading) that can help you better understand the tools you can utilize to avoid drugs and alcohol. These resources can also help connect you to others trying to stay sober as young adults.

Finally, if you’re in college or thinking about it, consider a sober-friendly school, or connect with a collegiate recovery program. What better way to live sober than to find friends doing the same and having a blast?

Some Tips for Staying on Track

Something important to remember — in young adulthood and beyond — is that we are all human, and we all make mistakes. It can be easy to beat yourself up if you “slip” during your sober era and use drugs or alcohol. Many people have, and have not developed a problem.

The key takeaway from a slip should be to consider it a jumping-off point to start fresh and use those resources previously mentioned to get back on a positive, healthier path. Living in the past or obsessing over our mistakes is unhelpful at best; it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. The key is to keep moving forward and taking the next right step.

Don’t compare yourself with anyone else. You are your own autonomous and powerful self. You are capable of making your own decisions. Just remember that the next time you’re confronted with an uncomfortable situation involving drugs or alcohol.

Instead of comparing yourself to those living a lifestyle you’re choosing to avoid, why not try to find folks on the same path as you? When you can identify with others that share your values, you can create alliances that will help you down the road if times get tough.

A Final Word From the Queen of Being Herself

Since we opened with old Epicurus from back in the day, let’s close out someone a little more recent. Someone who’s also made many hard decisions when it comes to being herself versus conforming to others: the one and only Dolly Parton.

Dolly said, “Find out who you are. And do it on purpose.” Make things happen instead of letting things happen to you. Be yourself, with purpose. No one knows what you want better than you do.

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