When Social Drinking Becomes Something More: Alcoholism in College

The all-pervasive party culture of college is no secret—ask any collegiette if she attended a basement bash last semester and the answer will more often than not be yes. Ask that same student, though, to recall the details of one of those parties, and the answer is likely to be much hazier. For many college kids, going to weekend parties is a no-brainer. They’re the perfect way to unwind and destress after a long week of attending classes and slogging through yet another nineteenth century British novel. But what most collegiettes don’t consider when they’re tossing back drink after drink at football pregames or the bar is that these habits that seem fun and harmless in the moment can have potentially permanent consequences—or, without even realizing it, develop into alcoholism. Since drinking can be such an integral, accepted part of the college lifestyle, it can be tricky to tell when your behavior actually qualifies as abuse or dependence. But you don't have to wonder or unknowingly be in danger anymore because we’re giving you the information you need to keep your boozing in check and the resources to turn to if it gets out of control.

Facts & Figures

According to Livestrong, approximately 17.6 million (8.5%) American adults abuse alcohol on a regular basis. Of all college students in the U.S., approximately 45% of students ages 18-24 engage in what can be considered “heavy episodic drinking.” Dr. Richard Saitz, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Boston University, lays down some parameters that constitute excessive alcohol use. “Heavy episodic drinking is five or more [drinks] on any occasion for men, four or more for women.” To define things in more concrete terms, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines alcohol abuse as “the consumption of at least 60 grams (2.1 ounces) of alcohol per day.” How many drinks make up 60 grams? Numbers vary from country to country, but the United States government has decided that the answer is approximately four. Though you’ve probably heard it before in your high school health class, check out the nifty guide below—measured on the ever-present red Solo cup—to determine what counts as one standard drink.

Of course, there are several theories as to why drinking is so pervasive among college students, including familial predisposition and the media—films such as Animal House, The Hangover, and Superbad, songs like Asher Roth’s “I Love College,” and Ludacris’s “Everybody Drunk,” and reality shows like The Jersey Shore all celebrate a boozy lifestyle—but much of the reason comes from peer pressure: “It’s hard to be around my wasted friends while I’m the sober one,” says Ryann*, a rising senior at Wagner College. Diane*, a rising junior at Wagner, says that her friend Ben “blames college culture for promoting dumb behavior. He says that he has no choice but to drink in order to be social and have a good time.” With this, “everyone’s doing it” and “it’s fun” mentality, along with the sheer abundance of alcohol at many parties, it can be hard to pass up another drink.

Recognizing Alcoholism

According to Dr. Saitz, “Around 7% [of students] have alcohol abuse, and 12% have alcohol dependence.” While many people may think that abuse and dependence are the same, it’s important to note the difference between the two. Alcohol abuse causes problems in a person’s life, but is not associated with addiction or its symptoms such as increased tolerance and withdrawal. Alcohol dependence, on the other hand, which is the correct medical term for alcoholism, goes hand in hand with noticeable symptoms and signs. “When you have alcoholism, you lose control over your drinking. You may not be able to control when you drink, how much you drink, or how long you drink on each occasion,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

If you’re confused about whether or not you or a friend may be developing an alcohol dependency, don’t panic: the symptoms of alcoholism are the same at any age, which Dr. Saitz notes include “memory loss, regretting sexual situations, missing class, work or obligations, academic problems, problems with significant others or relationships, and injuries” that may indicate an alcohol dependency issue. Unfortunately, drinking is rampant on college campuses across the nation, meaning it’s likely that many budding alcoholics may never realize the danger that they’re in. Aside from an increased tolerance of alcohol as well as a noticeable withdrawal period after stopping drinking, another huge sign of alcoholism is drinking alone. “My friends and I developed a habit where we would drink through the entire weekend,” says Ryann. “I wasn’t getting my work done, which led to me becoming stressed. Because of that I would drink more often, and a lot of times I would drink alone.”

Livestrong further breaks down the symptoms of alcoholism, explaining that there are personal, interpersonal, and situational symptoms—symptoms that the affected individual will be aware of, symptoms that become obvious in the context of relationships with others, and symptoms that are “situational in nature”—that may become apparent. These symptoms include frequent blackouts, a preoccupation with drinking or loss of interest in other activities, lying about the frequency or amount of drinking, drunk driving arrest, or drinking-related hospitalizations.