Skip to main content


Identifying a Dependency Problem

Gannett Health Services
110 Ho Plaza
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-3101

Tel: 607 255-5155
Fax: 607 255-0269

Would you know if your use of alcohol or other drugs—or someone else's— had become a problem? Too often students who experience harm from their use of substances, typically alcohol, don’t think it is a big deal as long as their grades are not impacted.

In fact, many students don’t consider the following kinds of consequences real "problems" or an indication of dependency:

  • vomiting
  • financial difficulties related to substance use
  • blacking out
  • loss or complication of relationships due to use
  • accidentally "hooking up" a couple of times a semester

Why not? They may not perceive them as problems because they believe so many other students do exactly the same thing. However, if you were out of college and saw somebody drinking or using with just those same consequences, you would probably identify that as a problem.

Check out this continuum. 

Consider where you would place yourself (or a friend).

Abstinence  Complete non-use of a substance
Non-Problem Use  Using in moderation; appropriate behavior; no harm from use such as blackouts, fights, accidents, getting into trouble
Incident  An isolated event; a single episode of experiencing a problem/ harm
Problem Use  A pattern of use with negative consequences and multiple incidents; using despite knowledge that use causes or contributes to problems; use in situations that are physically dangerous; moderation possible
Dependency  Some indicators of need for further exploration include:
• tolerance
• periodic loss of control in terms of how much you use and/or behavior
• substance use despite knowledge that use causes or contributes to problems
• substance use criticized by family or friends
• moderation difficult or impossible

A person's use of substances (alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs) can change over the course of a lifetime. You may even notice changes in your use over just a semester. Keep in mind that dependency is a complex diagnosis— no single behavior means that a person is dependent. Still have questions? Consider taking our on-line assessment.

Resources for support

If you are concerned about your  use or that of someone you care about, consider talking with someone you trust— family member, friend, or professor. Also, you may want to look into the range of services available at Gannett and in the Ithaca area, and learn more about treatment.

Understanding the role of family history

When thinking about your own use of substances, you may also want to keep in mind experiences other members of your family have had. Although genetics are not destiny, substance use problems tend to run in families, particularly for sons of alcoholic fathers. Also, remember that even if no one in your family has had an alcohol or other drug problem, that does not mean you are immune from experiencing one.