Drinking and college go together like “love and marriage”—right? Wrong! Just as the love-marriage connection has increased in complexity over the years, so too has the drinking-college connection.
Certainly, we have come a long way from thinking of drinking in college as a harmless recreational activity, a rite of passage on the road to adulthood. Nowadays, drinking on campus has become more dangerous than ever—and not only for the problem drinker, but also for the person who doesn’t drink.
Times Have Changed
For many years, colleges “looked the other way” when underage drinking occurred on campus or in fraternity housing. Then media coverage of the more sensational alcohol-related tragedies forced colleges to address the problem of heavy drinking. At the same time, media coverage of recent Harvard School of Public Health national surveys heightened both parental concern and public alarm about the dangers of “binge drinking” on campus. As defined by Harvard researchers Henry Wechsler and Nancy Isaac in 1992, binge drinking involves the consumption of five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more for women. The term was picked up by the media to describe drinking that leads to serious problems, like violence, date rape, injury, and death.
In Wechsler et al.’s 1999 study, 44 percent of the college students surveyed admitted to binge drinking in the preceding two weeks. Why they drink is even more telling. Whereas, in 1993, 39 percent of the students said they drink “to get drunk,” in 1999 that percentage had increased to 52 percent. This study also reported a significant increase in the number of those who do not drink at all, the abstainers. In 1999, 19 percent of students surveyed described themselves as abstainers, up from 15 percent in 1993. These researchers identified a polarization in drinking behavior: large numbers of students who do not drink and large numbers who drink excessively.
Terms Are Changing
Recently, a group of 21 associations in higher education urged government leaders and campus administrators and researchers to stop using the term “binge drinking.” Their reasoning goes like this: if students think binge drinking is the norm on their campus, merely using the term may encourage more alcohol consumption among students. In his response in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wechsler has said that no matter what term is used, students who consume four or five drinks in a row are at risk.
Is this a controversy about terminology, different perspectives on alcohol abuse, or concern that drinking on campus is a problem almost too big for a campus to handle? To Wechsler, Lee and colleagues, the controversy illustrates the continual denial of problem drinking on campuses.
A College Counselor’s Perspective
When more than half of the students surveyed say they drink to get drunk, that sends up a red flag for me. As a counseling psychologist who works with the college population, I suspect that many traditional-age college students (18-22) drink alcohol as a form of “self-medication.” Were they to present themselves for assessment of emotional, behavioral, and family difficulties, they may very well be referred for medical treatment for their problems. Of note as well is the fact that drinking is generally not a “new” problem. Most heavy drinkers arrive on campus with drinking problems.
Colleges are, however, capable of responding to problem drinking. The student services component on a college campus provides a “safety net” of services to deal with the medical, psychological, and behavioral consequences of heavy drinking. These services include counseling services, judicial affairs, campus residential life, campus police, and student activities. Some colleges, according to Kiernan, are taking the courageous path of stating publicly how they address alcohol abuse, even in their alumni publications.
A new initiative in the campus response to problem drinking is recognizing the second-hand effects of binge drinking. The consequences affect not only the drinker, but also other students and faculty in the campus community. Students who do not drink or engage in low-risk drinking are affected by the problem drinking of their fellow students. These problems can range from disrupted sleep or study to caring for an intoxicated roommate to even being humiliated or assaulted.
Understanding what the prevailing social norms about drinking are on a campus can be useful in devising new prevention efforts focused on those who are tired of the second-hand effects of their binge-drinking peers. Advocates of this focus, like Mendleson, hope to give voice to the silent majority of students much the same as the anti-smoking campaign was energized by the advertising campaign against second-hand smoke.
The Role of Parents
The alcohol beverage industry itself has had to respond to the perception and reality of problem drinking on campus. The industry has joined with national campus groups to sponsor information directed to parents (Parents, You’re Not Done Yet). Parents are advised to discuss drinking behaviors with their children, distinguishing between high-risk and low-risk drinking. In general, parents have to examine their own beliefs and values and behavior regarding alcohol, know how to get help for their children on campus, and teach their children how to refuse a drink.
Kiernan, B. (2000, Fall). Weaving a safety net. Fairfield NOW, 23(4), 12-16.
Mendelson, E. (2000, October 20), Emphasis on social norms can help curb drinking. Chronicle of Higher Education, 47(8), B13-14.
Parents, you’re not done yet (no date). Washington, DC: The Century Council. Retrieved November 28, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.centurycouncil.org/parents/index.cfm
Wechsler, H. (2000, October 20). Binge drinking: Should we attack the name or the problem? Chronicle of Higher Education, 47(8), B12-13.
Wechsler, H., & Isaac, N. (1992). “Binge” drinkers at Massachusetts colleges: Prevalence, drinking style, time trends, and associated problems. Journal of the American Medical Association, 267(21), 2929-2931.
Wechsler, H., Lee, J.E., Kuo, M., & Lee, H. (2000). College binge drinking in the 1990s: A continuing problem. Results of the Harvard School of Public Health 1999 College Alcohol Study. Journal of American College Health, 48(5), 199-210.
Wechsler, H., Molnar, B.E., Davenport, A.E., & Baer, J.S. (1999). College alcohol use: A full or empty glass? Journal of American College Health, 47(6), 247-252.
Landino, R. (2006). The Dangers of Drinking on Campus. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 27, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-dangers-of-drinking-on-campus/000275
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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