College drinking habits mirror addiction
It’s a familiar feeling — Friday night and the sharp smell of liquor is in the air. Students will probably find themselves starting out the night at a pregame, the floors sticky with old beer and a table graced with red Solo cups set up for a few rounds of drinking games. The room is filled with college students looking to blow off steam from a week’s worth of responsibilities, throwing back drinks and anticipating a night of reckless abandon. Fast-forward a few hours, and the night will be a blurry one for many, if not most, of the students who hit the town in search of a party.
Drinking in college has been normalized and glorified by the stereotypes portrayed in films and television shows. Films like the classic “Animal House” or the comedy “Blue Mountain State”, paint a heavy drinking culture as a typical part of the college experience. Such behavior is expected of college students, and almost all students head off to college with some kind of expectation for a party scene. Alcohol is extremely prevalent, and about four out of every five college students drink alcohol to some extent, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
Jonathan Gibralter is currently the President of Wells College in Aurora, New York, but prior to that role, he was the president of Frostburg State University in Maryland, and was reforming the party school by de-emphasizing alcohol use on campus. He believes that much of college campus culture revolves around alcohol use because it’s fairly cheap and easy to obtain. Yet, the way college students consume alcohol is unique in comparison to other demographics.
College students are a hidden generation of alcoholics. Many students, whether they realize it or not, are nursing substance abuse problems that could be diagnosed according to the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In fact, around 20% of college students engage in drinking habits that would classify them as having an alcohol-use disorder, according to the DSM-5. Based solely on psychiatric definitions alone, some of the students at each college party could be classified as alcoholics.
William Sonnenstuhl, Associate Professor in the Department of Organizational Behavior and the Department of Extension at Cornell University, says that when it comes down to it, approximately 18% of students probably can end up with a dependency diagnosis. “A way to break that number down is that 8% of students probably are dependent and already have very serious alcohol problems. They should have a real intervention, and chose abstinence,” Sonnenstuhl said. “The other 10-12% are abusing alcohol at a very high level, but with some confrontation in a clinical or friendly setting, those people will actually think about their behavior and change it.”
The problem is not necessarily that college students drink at all, but rather how they drink. The current generation of college students consumes much more alcohol in shorter durations of time than what is considered “normal” drinking. This is the generation of “binge-drinkers”. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration define binge drinking as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks for males and four or more alcoholic drinks for females within a two-hour period. It is not uncommon for someone to consume that many drinks at a pregame alone. In fact, five or more drinks is so typical on the average college night-out, that five drinks would hardly sound like an excessive amount of alcohol to a large portion of students. It’s been estimated that 50% of college students who drink binge drink, according to the aforementioned definition.
Students binge-drinking with the sole intent of getting drunk was seen by Gibralter during his time at Frostburg University. “I have heard students tell me their goal for a night is to get ‘blackout drunk’,” said Gibralter. After the stress of the week, it’s an easy way to relieve pressure and have fun. For the most part, society sees this as normal and chalks it up to being a part of the “experience” in college. Often, the more frequently that a person goes out drinking they will need to consume more alcohol to get drunk because their body builds up a tolerance to it, which can be a dangerous cycle.
College alcohol abuse is brought to light more often when tragedies occur, like a fraternity hazing incident gone wrong or the recent and tragic death of a Miami University freshman, who after being brought back to her dorm room due to being too drunk, never woke up. But the statistics prove that alcohol-related problems are more common than students think. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, annually about 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, 599,000 have received an unintentional injury, more than 150,000 have developed an alcohol-related health problem, and about 25% report poor academic consequences due to their drinking.
Gilbralter understands the tragedy that can occur out of college drinking firsthand. One of his students was stabbed at an off campus party and died, where all the people involved were under the influence of alcohol. Gibraltar notes that not only are people injured directly due to their alcohol intake, but they are also injured as a result of accidents that occur when their judgement is impaired by drinking, “While students are not drinking as often as they once did, when they drink they are consuming a much higher volume of alcohol with deadly consequences for over 1,800 college students a year. In addition, beyond those who die from the direct consumption of alcohol, many more are injured in accidents and fights,” Gilbralter said.
Gilbralter isn’t the only professional that feels students engage in risky behaviors when they are drunk. Dr. Michael Bonnazzola, Chief Medical Officer and Practicing Internist at the Oregon Health & Science University, says, “It’s not the drinking that kills people, it’s the stupid things college students sometimes do when they’re drinking.”
The reasons that college students consume alcohol can also contribute to drinking problems. Not every student drinks for underlying reasons, but some consume alcohol as a vice. Alcohol can be used to mask social anxiety while at social gatherings, to cope with the pressure that school has put on them or to self-medicate. Since anxiety and depression are common for college students to feel, they may drink to tackle these issues rather than addressing them through avenues like therapy or medication. Drinking to cope with mental health problems creates a vicious cycle that further cultivates mental health problems and never addresses the real issue at hand.
While joining Greek life at college can provide a strong social system for students, it can also cultivate an environment of normalized alcohol abuse. According to a study by Harvard University, four out of every five fraternity and sorority members are binge drinkers. Joining a Greek organization can put a social pressure on students to drink in order to bond with their sorority sisters or fraternity brothers. Especially at large universities, joining Greek life can feel essential to forming close bonds amongst the thousands of students enrolled in the university. In turn, members may feel like they have to adapt similar drinking habits as the rest of the group in order to fit in.
Sonnenstuhl, however, feels that there are many misconceptions when it comes to college drinking. He says, “ When you actually look at the way students are drinking, you see that most students are actually drinking responsibly.”
One of the reasons why college drinking is often overlooked is that most students opt to discontinue their collegiate drinking habits once they graduate, and abandon frat parties for a career. “Some college students have fun and do crazy things in order to ‘figure it out’, but normally as they get older they’ll have a career and a family, and will drink less,” said Bonnazzola.
But this doesn’t excuse the four years that were spent binge drinking vodka and blacking out at dingy house parties. For four years, many students pound tequila shots, shotgun beers and blackout in ways that display symptoms of substance abuse and alcoholism, which can have lasting health impacts far past college graduation.
“My one piece of advice is to not tell students not to drink,” shares Gibraltar. “Don’t be judgmental. College students will drink even if you tell them not to. However, you should engage students in conversations about alcohol consumption… Education, prevention and intervention have to go hand in hand.”
Rae Harris is a second-year journalism major who learned everything she knows from Asher Roth’s “I Love College”. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org