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Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

So you (or your child) are going off to college. You will have a new roommate. It is a bit scary since you do not know what sort of person she will be. You know that there will be a lot of new challenges in this new place. More school work, new friends and maybe different parties, added responsibilities for shopping for food, cooking and cleaning. It all seems a bit overwhelming, but you are confident that it will turn out OK.

But what about drugs?

The question is, even if you never will use drugs, is there any danger of negative effects? If the people around you use recreational drugs, can it screw up your life even if you do not?

When such a thing happens we call it “second hand effects.”1

The one thing that is common to every recreational drug is that they all affect behavior. A person using drugs acts differently when she or he is intoxicated than when sober.

Take a moment to imagine the following negative scenarios:

  1. Alcohol is the most popular party drug on college campuses. Is it difficult to imagine a drunk roommate getting sick in the middle of the night? Who is going to have to clean up and put her to bed? Who is going to spend a few hours the next day talking about what might have happened and what the consequences might be?
  2. Living with a roommate that uses drugs can have numerous negative consequences. You are more likely to be insulted or humiliated. Once might be tolerable (or excusable, after all he was high.) You are more likely to have a serious argument. Intoxicated people are more likely to cause property damage. If she throws your i-pad in the bath, it might not be as excusable or tolerable. Alcohol and cocaine (and for some people marijuana) can trigger unwanted sexual advances. You might even wind up being a victim of assault...

Even if you’ve chosen to go to a “party school”, to graduate you have to succeed academically. Second hand effects of living with a substance abusing roommate will decrease your opportunities for academic success.

How to Deal with a Roommate on Drugs or Alcohol...

Ignore It (Not Such a Good Idea)

Ignore it? This is actually the most popular strategy. It is also the least efficient. It leaves you open to all the second hand effects and more. It does not help your roommate because you are now complicit. It is the same process of being a co-dependent. You might not be the lover, parent or spouse, but if you tolerate the bad behavior caused by substance abuse, you are putting yourself in that position. In effect the substance using roommate is not only abusing a chemical, but also abusing the roommate (you.)

Communicate and Set Boundaries

Talk to the roommate? This would seem like the best step to take. But talking can mean many things to different people. How do you make such a conversation helpful?

  1. Know what you want: Do you need no drugs in the apartment or no drug use in the apartment? Is it OK to have a party once a month on a Saturday night except during exam week? Make a clear decision about the line you need drawn and what you will not tolerate.
  2. Have a clear plan: If your rules are broken, what action will you take?
  3. Protect yourself without being vengeful or angry: Make it clear that you need to protect yourself and your investment in your education. You cannot control your roommate. Don’t try. Emphasize that you need to take the steps you are taking for your own sake and he or she will have to make his or her choices around the rules you have set for yourself.
  4. Don’t say anything you do not 100% mean: If you set a rule and a consequence, stick to it. If you are going to give a second chance, then build it in from the beginning. (“If I have to deal with this more than one more time, then I will have to protect myself by taking the following action.” “It will be three strikes and you’re out. Period.”) If you own the lease and make a rule of no illegal drug use in the apartment at all, you need to be 100% willing and able to kick the roommate out. If you will need to leave then you need to be 100% willing and able to leave. If not, then construct other ways of protecting yourself.

Report the Drug or Alcohol Use

Report it? Is this a good idea?

It is not simple. Or we hope it is not simple. If your roommate insists on dealing crack cocaine from your apartment you probably should report it even before talking to him or her. That would be simple. But if there are drunken parties that don’t let you study, you will have to think about if it will actually help, or even make things worse. If it is something that your school and the authorities generally ignore, reporting might not help. If your school does not allow the behavior in the dorms and you are in a dorm, that should be an option built into the talk you have with the roommate.

  • 1. Meri Stiles (2013) Secondhand Effects of Substance Use for Rural College Students, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 23:4, 529-535
About the author Ari Hahn:
I am a professional helper since 1976 and an LCSW since 1991. I have specialized in survivors of trauma. Presently I also have an on-line therapy and coaching practice where I also specialize in helping families and loved ones of ex-abused people. I also am a professor at TCI College in NYC.
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Page last updated Sep 02, 2013

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