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.

Crippling Consequences

While most heavy drinkers accept that they’ll likely be hungover in the morning, many forget to consider the more serious long-term physical and mental consequences of drinking. “When I was drinking, I felt sloshy, sluggish, and very stressed, all the time,” says Ryann. “I wasn’t motivated to do anything, which was so out of character for me. I was on the verge of a mini-meltdown almost every night.” In addition to increased stress and a lack of motivation, other mental side effects of consistent heavy drinking include depression, dementia, anxiety, and insomnia. Aside from the obvious physical side effects, such as heart disease and liver cirrhosis, habitual drinkers may also suffer from an increased risk of various cancers, including breast, mouth, and esophageal cancer, as well as malnutrition.
Help Is On The Horizon

If you or a friend is a heavy drinker, you may feel hopeless and at a loss as to what your next step should be. First, it’s important to remember that alcoholism is a disease, not something to be ashamed of. Then, remember that there is always a solution. According to Dr. Saitz, there are a number of known effective treatments, including medication and psychotherapies. “Psychotherapy is counseling that is defined and structured, and has specified elements that have been proven effective in well-designed studies. These include motivational enhancement, cognitive behavioral and twelve step facilitation therapies.” He does note, though, that there are additional key issues in treating college students: their environment and the simple truth that most college students with alcohol disorders do not seek treatment. Because of this, it is important that college students try other approaches. “These approaches include in person, mail, or web-based self assessments, and the feedback from these assessments that includes individualized estimates of risks and information about how many other students are really drinking at the same level. It’s often surprising to the students to find out that most others are not.”

If you’re uncomfortable seeking help alone or in person, there are a number of available group or online resources. “Alcoholics Anonymous and other self/mutual help groups are not treatments, but they can have a useful role—in part by providing an abstinent social network,” says Dr. Saitz. Alcoholics Anonymous hosts two types of meetings: open and closed. At open meetings, speakers talk about the ways that they have been helped by A.A. Members are allowed to bring relatives or friends, so if you’re feeling nervous, this is the time to convince your roommate to tag along. Closed meetings, on the other hand, are for alcoholics only and take place as group discussions that revolve around the Twelve Steps.

In addition to A.A., Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is an online resource provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Using SAMHSA’s website, addicts can utilize a Treatment Facility Locator that includes more than 11,000 addiction treatment programs in a variety of styles and locations. Smart Recovery is an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous, billing themselves as the “leading self-empowering addiction recovery support group.” Their focus is on self-management, and they use a 4-Point program to help addicts recover from any type of addiction.

Finally, one of the most accessible resources to all college students is on-campus alcohol counseling facilities. While programs vary from school to school, help is only a phone call or visit to your campus Health Center away. One well-known program available on campuses across the country is the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) program, available at schools including Penn State University, Ithaca College, University of Michigan, and Boston University. Even if BASICS is not at your school, your campus will likely have some sort of similar program that provides counseling and guidance for alcohol-related issues.

The premise of BASICS is simple: students answer purposeful, pointed questions about their alcohol consumption. The responses given are then analyzed by a clinician, who determines whether or not the individual has developed dependence. According to the University of Michigan BASICS website, the program “is designed to assist students in examining their own drinking behavior in a judgment-free environment.” Maggie*, a student at the University of Michigan who took advantage of her campus’s BASICS program after one too many negative brushes with alcohol during her senior year of high school and freshman year of college, believes that the BASICS program offers valuable insight and numerous benefits. “A friend told me about BASICS after I mentioned I found myself frequently blacking out on the weekends. I was hesitant to go, because I felt like it would mean I had a serious problem or was an alcoholic, but I’m so glad I went,” she says. “ I talked to someone there twice, and it was a much more relaxing, comfortable environment than I expected. The woman I spoke to helped me establish safe ways to drink—what is a safe limit, how to measure it, and things to tell myself before going out. It really helped me put my drinking in perspective.” She goes on to mention one of the key aspects of the BASICS program: “Going to something like that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a problem or are an alcoholic. We could all benefit from tips about healthy drinking habits, even if we think we’ve all heard it before.”

Dr. Saitz, whose primary area of expertise includes the BASICS program, says that the program has proved to be effective in dozens of clinical trials. “The key,” he says, “is to do it properly, which means with respect and nonjudgmentally. Ask permission to talk about it and give advice, be genuinely interested in the person’s well-being, and listen to the student to find solutions that will work for them.”

For those collegiettes whose campus lacks a BASICS program, a call to the student health services center will point concerned students in the direction of comparable on-campus programs that will provide the same assistance.

While seeking treatment from alcoholism may feel like a huge undertaking, recovery is possible. After taking a brief hiatus from alcohol in order to refocus her life, Ryann has taken control of her alcohol abuse and gone back to enjoying only a drink or two occasionally. “I have a much better grasp on myself as a person and I’m not as dependent on alcohol to make me feel freer or more accepted in a group. I learned that drinking while stressed is never a good thing.”

Have you or your friends had experience with alcohol abuse in college? Share with a comment below.

*Names have been changed