When a student heads off to college, friends, family members and loved ones hope that they are prepared both emotionally and academically for transitions and the independence that comes with college life. But for some students, drinking problems emerge with potentially serious consequences for a student’s academics, relationships and mental and physical health.
Colleges have long struggled to identify who is most at risk for developing drinking problems and which interventions best treat problems once they emerge.
With more than 1,825 college student deaths from alcohol-related accidents, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, it’s also a question of keen interest and scientific investigation for psychologists. What have they discovered?
“College drinking is sometimes still viewed as a harmless rite of passage, when in fact [college students] are drinking more than any other age or demographic group,” says psychologist James Murphy, PhD, in Monitor on Psychology (October 2013). And the statistics on college drinking suggest that for many it is far from harmless.
Nearly 600,000 students are injured by another student who had been drinking and 97,000 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape, according to the Journal study. Add to that the 25 percent of college students who report academic consequences and it is clear that college drinking can have significant consequences.
Who is at Risk?
In order to reduce excessive alcohol use, psychologists have focused on identifying who is most at risk of developing problems and directing prevention efforts toward those students.
Incoming freshmen, student-athletes and students involved in the Greek system are most at risk, according to the Monitor. And, although men tend to drink more, women progress faster from alcohol use to abuse.
But just because a student is a freshman volleyball player who is pledging a sorority doesn’t mean she’ll develop a drinking problem. Personality also plays a role in who is vulnerable to alcohol abuse. Impulsivity and sensation-seeking contribute to risky drinking, while needing more alcohol to experience its effects or being someone who experiences more of the stimulating effects puts a student at higher risk.
Student attitudes toward alcohol use also play a key role in contributing to risky drinking. Mary Larimer, PhD, director of the University of Washington’s Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors, said that overestimating how much peers are drinking contributes to the problem. So does expecting great things from alcohol use, such as a more outgoing personality or meeting new friends. Both overestimating others’ use and expecting too much from drinking are linked to overindulgence and negative consequences, such as engaging in unsafe sex.
College campuses have had campus-wide awareness programs and educational sessions for decades. But, while popular, these programs have had limited effect in addressing the problem of risky drinking, according to an NIAAA Task Force on College Drinking.
In 1999, Alan Marlatt, PhD, and his team introduced a Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (PDF). BASICS gives students personalized feedback on their drinking behaviors. It uses motivational interviewing techniques to explore alcohol use and produce change. It also offers strategies and problem-solving techniques to help students decrease risky drinking. According to the American Journal of Public Health, BASICS meets NIAAA’s highest standards for a college evidence-based drinking intervention.
Although the treatment doesn’t work for everybody, it has been shown to reduce how much students drink and the negative consequences associated with risky drinking.
The treatment continues to be modified to address the needs of unresponsive students. Some alterations include web-based presentations by trained peers, shortening the intervention, and student-delivered interventions.
Mary Dolores Cimini, PhD, assistant director for prevention and program evaluation at University at Albany, SUNY Counseling Center, suggests that students or any facilitators who deliver the interventions will get mixed results unless they are well trained and closely supervised.
Psychologists and campus personnel continue to investigate and build upon the successes of BASICS. Cimini, for example, has tailored the BASICS program for high-risk drinkers and other specific populations. In an intervention called STEPS, Cimini might teach a student-athlete about how drinking affects hydration and athletic performance.
Another team is personalizing BASICS by adding a one-hour supplement focused on student goals for college and beyond and highlighting the effect of drinking on goal attainment. Over time, they hope to decrease risky drinking and its negative consequences by intervening with individuals at risk, as well as by changing campus culture.