How College Drinking Culture is Hurting You

You’ve heard it at some point in college. Perhaps you’ve said it yourself: “It’s not alcoholism until you graduate.” Although this common saying is meant as a joke, it can lead to witnessing and engaging in dangerous drinking behaviors. We all know that binge drinking and alcoholism are harmful, so why do we act like we get a free pass in college? We talked to Dr. Roy Stefanik, DO, a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, about how excessive drinking (and taking it for granted) can endanger your health.

How the college drinking culture can harm you

Not everyone drinks in college, but those who do drink often get to the point of getting drunk or blacking out. Between playing beer pong, pre-gaming with shots or day-drinking, alcohol plays a large role in our undergraduate lives.

According to Dr. Stefanik, many college students drink way beyond what is safe during their college careers. “It's not unusual for students to go through a period of time in college when they drink heavily and markedly reduce their drinking shortly after graduation,” Dr. Stefanik says. “For many, drinking is part of the internal culture of being in college.”

That being said, being aware of how much alcohol is considered a “safe” amount is crucial to being smart about drinking. There are many factors that come into play, including body weight, taking other drugs, and sometimes even ethnicity, but “generally, it takes about an hour to an hour and a half to break down the alcohol in a single beer or mixed drink,” Dr. Stefanik says. “Four drinks over the course of an hour in an otherwise healthy college-aged woman will probably cause a blood level at or above 0.08 percent, which is the blood level content (BAC) considered to be legal intoxication while driving. However, both men and women can experience slowing down of reflexes at lower concentrations.”

Aside from “It’s not alcoholism until you graduate,” there are many other myths that college students swear by when it comes to alcohol. Dr. Stefanik lists the following and explains why they’re dangerous:

  • “I can drink and still be in control.”

Why it’s dangerous: “In many ways drinking can badly impair judgment. It can result in injury, unprotected sex, date rape or other hurtful behaviors,” Dr. Stefanik says. In other words, when you drink, you are more prone to doing a lot of things that you wouldn’t normally, and you are more vulnerable to others’ drunken behavior as well. You are no longer in control.

  • “I can sober up quickly if I have to.”

Why it’s dangerous: “Nothing can speed up the process - coffee, cold showers, energy drinks, Advil or vitamins,” Dr. Stefanik says. “It takes about three hours to eliminate the alcohol in your system from two drinks, depending on your weight. On occasion, people of certain ethnic backgrounds may take even longer to metabolize it through their liver.” There is no such thing as sobering up “on demand.” If a situation comes up, you won’t be able to handle it soberly.

  • “Women can hold their liquor as well as men.”

Why it’s dangerous: “Because women process alcohol differently, much of it [is] due to differences in body weight,” Dr. Stefanik says. “If a woman drinks the same amount as a man, she is more likely to be intoxicated or impaired.” So whatever you do, don’t try to keep up with your guy friends’ drinking, because you could end up feeling much worse than you had anticipated.

Of course, you want to let loose in college and have a good time, but drinking too much is not fun. “I studied abroad in Ireland and that was my first real experience with drinking,” says Lauren, a junior at Marymount University. “I had to learn the hard way what my limits really were by drinking too much one night and feeling completely out of control. It was difficult but you have to learn your limits, unfortunately sometimes it has to be the hard way.”

Simply being aware of what is and isn’t true about alcohol consumption can help you gauge when to stop, so that you can still have a good time without endangering your health or safety.

When it becomes a larger problem

There is a big difference between drinking in moderation and drinking so much at one time that your friends are constantly taking care of you. “If the drinking consistently results in dangerous or self-destructive behavior [like] blackouts, violence, impulsivity, etc., an alcohol problem may already exist,” Dr. Stefanik says. “Alcohol abuse can happen at any time, whether you are in high school, college, graduate school, in the workforce or in retirement.” So, yes, it could be alcoholism before you graduate. And in the short term, “binge drinking can cause an array of problems ranging from injury to unwanted pregnancy,” Dr. Stefanik adds.

For Amber, a junior at Appalachian State University, partying can often become an excuse for putting other things off. “I really have to stop myself from rolling my eyes when I hear collegiettes say ‘it's not alcoholism until we graduate,’” Amber says. “The problem with that saying is it gives an excuse to drink, and then lay on the couch all day hungover, instead of focusing on your college studies, securing an internship in order to graduate, and landing a job or internship post-graduation.”

As if drinking in itself wasn’t dangerous enough, drunk driving is still a far too common occurrence. “Driving drunk can get you killed, get someone else killed, land you in jail or result in tremendous property damage and serious long-term financial and legal problems,” Dr. Stefanik warns. “When [you’re] applying for a job that requires a background check, the existence of a felony record could permanently prevent you from getting the job you want.” Don’t let your partying get so out of control that it holds you, your relationships and your career back and jeopardizes your health!

How to party more safely

Dr. Stefanik shares a few things to keep in mind to make sure you’re not overdoing it.

  • Know your limitations (think four drinks in two hours) and when to say no. Just because someone is offering you another drink doesn't mean you have to accept it, especially if you are beginning to feel out of control.
  • When going out for drinks, make sure you are with friends you trust and will watch out for you.
  • Don't drink and drive. You can avoid this by having a designated driver, only going to bars within walking distance or simply getting a taxi or Uber home.

How to get help

If you are truly concerned about your drinking, or your friends have started to mention it becoming a problem, it’s time to reach out to people who are more qualified to help you. “All colleges have counseling centers where they can do an evaluation to determine what is the best way to move forward,” Dr. Stefanik says. “Many campuses also have Alcohol Anonymous meetings on campus as well to provide a support system while attending school.”

A quick Google search will tell you which services are available on campus. If this is too daunting, you can ask a friend to come with you to meet with a counselor! Otherwise, check out these online resources.

While drinking isn't a problem for most of us, the binge mentality in college can quickly turn it into one. Not taking alcohol abuse seriously can have truly harmful consequences on your health, relationships, schoolwork and career, so think twice the next time you want to say, “It’s not alcoholism until you graduate!”