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Study links interpersonal guilt to substance abuse in college students

03-09 | By CSAA Team

Study links interpersonal guilt to substance abuse in college students

When a concern becomes overbearing for an individual, he or she tends to change his or her behavior to adapt to the situation. This interpersonal guilt is believed to emanate from childhood events and family dynamics. It also arises due to feelings of being better off than others, especially family members.

For example, children who feel their parents are not happy or are worried about something may change their own behavior to try and positively influence their parents’ situation. If the child is not able to do so, it may give rise to negative self-perceptions and feelings of guilt. Such feelings may result in development of unhealthy habits, such as excessive use of alcohol and other substances.

A study by researchers at Smith College School for Social Work has indicated a possible association between substance abuse and interpersonal guilt caused by family conditions, childhood events and upbringing. Results of the study were published in the journal Substance Abuse on Jan. 22, 2015. The survey participants included 1,865 college students, aged 18 to 25 from three different universities during the 2008-2009 academic year, who were regular users of illicit drugs, alcohol and other harmful substances and compared with occasional users under each category.

The researchers found that the existence of interpersonal guilt was much higher in participants who were categorized as risky drinkers and daily smokers. However, participants categorized as regular users of cannabis reported lower levels of interpersonal guilt. Probably so because cannabis, as lead author Geoffrey Locke observed, is associated with apathy, unwillingness to participate in any activity and lassitude. No association could be made between guilt and use of other illegal substances.

Perception of family conditions may give rise to guilt

The participants were asked questions on basic demographic parameters, use of alcohol, cigarette, cannabis and other illegal drugs as well as an interpersonal guilt measure comprising four subdivisions:

  • Survivor guilt: The belief that good things are acquired at the cost of others.
  • Separation guilt: The belief that separation, such as in parents, is harmful for relationships.
  • Omnipotent responsibility guilt: Biased sense of responsibilities towards others.
  • Self-hate guilt: The belief in a general sense of badness which may be directly or indirectly related to the fear of harming others.

The study also observed that college is a transitional phase for most students who are living away from their families for the first time. It is natural for such newly-independent students to be in an emotionally vulnerable state. They may resort to drugs and other substances as a coping mechanism to deal with their emotional states brought about as a result of separation from their families and anxiety felt in the new environment.

Substance abuse by college students can result in serious consequences such as overdose, medical crises, legal problems and below-average academic performance. Sometimes, a child, seeing his or her parents suffer, may try to improve the condition, and on failure to do so, develop negative self-perceptions and indulge in improper behavior.

Need for further research

The study does not identify a causal relationship between guilt and excessive use of alcohol or other substances. It has not established if, for example, feelings of guilt are a result of alcoholism, or if alcoholism is a mechanism to deal with pre-existing guilt. Locke also mentions his desire to broaden the scope of research by focusing his attention on evaluating substance use and gathering specific details on drug abuse. He cites the relationship between use of opiates and guilt as another area of focus.

Additional research investigating the relationship between substance abuse patterns and interpersonal guilt will also enable timely intervention and preventive measures for the 18 to 25-year-old population.

If you know someone who is battling a substance use disorder, the Colorado Substance Abuse Advisors can connect you to substance abuse treatment centers in Colorado that provide customized treatments. You can call our 24/7 helpline number 866-300-5857 or chat online with our advisors for more information on the finest substance abuse treatment programs in Colorado.


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