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It’s time to acknowledge that alcoholism in college does exist

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

It’s no secret that many students excuse heavy drinking in college as the “norm.” Yet while partying and excessive drinking may be commonplace in the lives of many college students, college alcoholism affects thousands every year — and it needs to be talked about.

This is especially true as Alcohol Awareness Month, sponsored by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) and focused on increasing public awareness and educating others about the treatment and prevention of alcoholism, starts April 1. 

The data from a 2019 national survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) revealed that almost 53 percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month and about 33 percent engaged in binge drinking — or consuming too much alcohol in too little time — during that same time frame.

For men, binge drinking involves drinking five or more alcoholic beverages in two hours. For women, binge drinking is considered to be four or more drinks within a two-hour time period. Often, some students find themselves imbibing at least twice that amount, a behavior that is often called high-intensity drinking.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) sets safe drinking levels as one drink daily for women and two daily drinks for men. 

Yet, a new study published in March by ​​researchers from the University of Pennsylvania has found that consumption at either of those levels causes detectable, harmful changes in the brain. According to the study, as little as a glass of beer or wine daily is associated with reduced brain size and structure over time. The researchers explained how there is some evidence that binge drinking is worse for the brain. 

Particularly amidst the pandemic, several studies have suggested that Americans, in general, are now buying more alcohol and drinking more frequently. A 2021 survey commissioned by Alkermes, an Ireland-based biopharmaceutical company, found that among the 6,006 U.S. adults ages 21 and older surveyed, 1,003 adults (or about 17%) reported “heavy drinking” (having had two heavy drinking days in a single week at least twice in the previous 30 days). According to the survey, this means that nearly 1 in 5 Americans are consuming an unhealthy amount of alcohol. 

College years are often popular times for students to experiment with alcohol, basking in their newfound freedom and independence. The wide availability of alcohol at sporting events and social activities can be tempting, leading to higher consumption and, ultimately, a higher tolerance to alcohol over time. 

The problem lies in the fact that many see binge drinking as just an extension of their higher education experience. Some may even drink just from the pressure of wanting to fit in or avoid standing out. As a result, people may fail to point out or criticize the behaviors of their friends, and instead, encourage each other to frequently drink and/or become overly inebriated. The result: a culture of normative drinking where the dangers and consequences of such actions fall out of focus. 

More recently, the end goal for many college drinkers hasn’t been to socialize but rather to get drunk and even black out. This is especially worrisome with the increased popularity of hard liquor, which requires fewer drinks to feel its effects — some of which can be life-threatening, such as alcohol poisoning. 

Frequent heavy drinkers ultimately increase their chances of developing an alcohol use disorder (often called alcoholism), which can cause serious, life-ruining physical and emotional damage. 

Unfortunately, some fail to acknowledge that the behavior and habits established in college don’t simply end upon graduation. Just because you may be in a college setting doesn’t mean you’re immune to the very real and deadly disease that is alcoholism. If you don’t think it can happen to you … think again. 

According to a 2019 national survey by SAMHSA, around 9 percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Additionally, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that about 1,519 college students ages 18 to 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes. 

So while drinking can be fun and offer a way to socialize, alcohol is ultimately a drug that can be abused — no matter what age or setting you’re in. Remember: Heavy drinking affects more than just an individual; it puts the health and safety of friends, family, and others at risk. 

That’s why we need to stop promoting and even sometimes romanticizing dangerous behaviors that threaten ourselves and our friends. 

How? Look out for yourself and your friends and recognize when enough is enough to drink. Ask the hard questions and reflect … Do you find yourself needing alcohol to have a good time? Is it something you’re reliant on? Do you have a hard time controlling your consumption? Are you drinking just to drink? Are you and/or a friend drinking multiple days a week? Talk about it. Reach out to someone who you think might need some support. Consult your school’s counseling and psychological services for resources and treatment services. 

Drinking in college is not going away. Seemingly, neither is alcoholism. A previous report has estimated that 95,000 people (approximately 68,000 men and 27,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. 

But we can use our early adult years to foster safe behaviors and develop habits that don’t compromise the health and safety of ourselves, our friends, and our families. 

It’s time to stop pretending that alcoholism in college doesn’t exist.

Madison Rudolf

George Mason University '22

Madison is currently a senior at George Mason University studying Communication with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in Sustainability Studies. Madison enjoys using journalism as an outlet to write and inform about the environment. She is also a Strategic Communications Intern for Mason's Office of Communications and Marketing writing stories for the Mason website and The George newsletter. Outside of school, Madison enjoys running, reading, and exploring Washington, D.C.