The Culture of Alcohol Abuse on College Campuses

Alcohol culture in universities is a nearly ubiquitous media depiction. Most people can conjure up John Belushi in a toga chanting or college freshmen getting initiated into campus life with rousing cheers of "Shots! Shots! Shots!" in any number of coming-of-age comedies. While scenes like this in movie and TV can always make us laugh, they have also played a significant role in normalizing college drinking. Drinking in college can be an enjoyable experience, but it is easy to lose control. When binge drinking and alcohol abuse become the center of socializing, many young adults on college campuses find they need help. Approximately 20 percent of college students have an alcohol use disorder.

What makes college drinking so common? Why does this culture result in so many young adults who struggle with alcohol abuse? Understanding the foundation of college drinking culture and the warning signs for alcohol abuse can help students and the people who care about them get help.

Alcohol Culture in Universities

Frequent binge drinking characterizes alcohol culture, but what is the difference between having a few drinks and binging? The definition of binge drinking for women is having four or more drinks in a single period, and having five or more drinks in a single period for men. Recent data shows millions of men and women report going on a drinking binge within the last month. Binge drinking is not limited to college students, but it is a frequent part of university culture. Why is alcohol abuse on college campuses so common?

For many young adults, attending college is the first time in their lives without regular adult supervision. It is especially the case for students who move into college dorms or off-campus apartments, as opposed to students who commute to classes from home. This foray into adulthood can be intimidating. College students may not feel ready for adulthood, or find the sense of freedom a breath of fresh air. Either way, there is no one there telling them what to to do and what not to do. Drinking is an adult activity, and college is an entrance into adulthood. The two seem like a natural fit.

Along with that newfound freedom comes a desire to fit in and make friends. When everyone else is drinking, the level of peer pressure to join in is powerful. Many social activities in college revolve around drinking, so turning down a drink at a party can seem like a risky move. Will you be the odd one out? Will your peers stop inviting you to parties? That level of peer pressure can be particularly intense when college students are members of a fraternity or sorority. Greek culture has long had a reputation for excessive drinking. One study found a link between pressure to display hyper-masculinity in fraternity chapters and excessive drinking.

Whether they participate in Greek culture or not, college students can be under an incredible amount of stress. The uncertainty that comes with being away from home for the first time and the pressure to perform well academically is undeniably stressful. Binge drinking is a common way to "blow off steam" and cope with that stress. After studying for tests all week, a weekend of binge drinking seems like the ideal way to forget about school for a while.

Plus, a lot of college students are on strict budgets. If alcohol is available, why not drink as much as possible? After all, who knows when the next drink will be available?

Colleges and universities have rules to curb excessive alcohol consumption. The law prohibits underage drinking across the board, since the legal age to buy and consume alcohol is 21. Some colleges take it a step further and ban alcohol on campus entirely. While these rules are well-meaning, they do not necessarily solve the issue of alcohol abuse in college. Additionally, colleges do not always have ways to strictly enforce drinking rules. In the case of dry campuses, students will often find places to drink away from school premises. Despite prohibition and other school policies, many college students still face the consequences of alcohol abuse.

The Consequences of Alcohol Abuse in College

Heavy drinking comes with consequences. College students know this, but often think they will remain in control and avoid disrupting their lives. While this may be true for some people, it is vital to understand what is at stake.

  1. Academic failure: When someone feels intoxicated with freedom and new social experiences, it can be easy for them to forget earning an education is the primary objective of attending a university. Approximately one-fourth of college students say they have academic problems related to the consequences of drinking. Academic issues can range from missing class or doing poorly on a test to completely failing a class. Poor academic performance can have far-reaching consequences that affect your career path and chances of securing a job after graduation.
  2. Expulsion: Missed classes, late projects and failed tests add up. Poor enough academic performance can result in getting expelled from college. Even though you didn't earn a degree, any student loans you have taken out will stay with you. Poor academic performance is not the only way college students who abuse alcohol can risk expulsion. Some universities have strict rules regulating drinking on campus. If the authorities catch you breaking those rules repeatedly, you could face getting kicked out of student housing or from the university altogether. Expulsion can make it difficult to get your academic life back on track.
  3. Increased risk-taking: Alcohol lowers your inhibitions. It might seem like the perfect trick to fitting in and making new friends, but lowered inhibitions can also lead to increased risk-taking behavior. For example, heavy drinking can lead to risky sexual encounters, such as unprotected sex with a stranger. People under the influence of alcohol have clouded judgment, and decisions like that can seem simple at the time. After all, you will wake up tomorrow — maybe a little hungover  to a new day. But, substantial risks can lead to consequences, such as sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy, that last long after the drinks are out of your system.
  4. Assault: Lowered inhibitions can make violence more likely to occur, and assault on college campuses is a persistent problem. Approximately 696,000 students ages 18 to 24 years old experience assault from another student who is under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol abuse can also play a role in sexual assault. The consequences both for students who commit assault and their victims are far-reaching. Students who commit assault can face expulsion and legal consequences, while those who are victims of this violence have to live with the damage to their physical and mental health.
  5. Death: College students often view heavy drinking as a badge of honor. Who can take the most shots? Who has had the worst hangover? Who threw up where? Excessive drinking like that may seem like a recipe for fun stories, but it can cause alcohol poisoning and even death. Every year, alcohol causes about 88,000 deaths, which means it is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Of those deaths, 31 percent are driving-related. Excessive drinking can lead not only to your death, but also the death of others if you decide to get behind the wheel while intoxicated.

The Warning Signs of Alcohol Abuse in College

When so many people are drinking in college, it can be difficult to determine when social drinking has crossed the line into alcohol abuse. College students may rationalize their behavior because they only have their peers, who also binge drink, for comparison. Often, parents whose children live on campus have no idea what their college student's social life is like and how much alcohol they are consuming. Here are some red flags college students and those who care about them should know.

  1. Poor academic performance: College students can struggle academically for many reasons. Maybe they need to juggle both a job and their classroom responsibilities, or perhaps they need more help understanding the course material. But alcohol is a major factor to consider. If college students have a sharp dropoff in academic performance, look at what they are doing outside of the classroom. What is the major difference between high school and college? Often, ready access to alcohol is a factor. Ask yourself if your nights and weekend drinking are making it difficult to make it to class. Did you feel too queasy to concentrate on that last test? Or, did you oversleep and miss the exam completely? This consequence of binge drinking can be a signal that you need to reassess how much of a role drinking plays in your social life.
  2. Prioritizing drinking: Many people who struggle with alcohol abuse find ways to make alcohol their top priority. They spend a lot of time planning for their next drink and avoid social gatherings that do not involve drinking. If you find yourself structuring every social event around the availability of alcohol, ask yourself why. If you decide having one more drink is more important than studying for tomorrow's test, consider what this means. College students may also notice this behavior in their peers and serve as a reminder to one another about what priorities matter most.
  3. Health issues: Many people think of the long-term health consequences of alcohol abuse. Over time, heavy drinking can damage the heart and liver. Alcohol abuse increases the risk of high blood pressure and stroke, as well as liver disease. College students are young, and those risks seem like a distant possibility. However, heavy drinking affects your body in the immediate present. Alcohol changes how your brain communicates with your body, making coordination more difficult and falls more likely. Binge drinking also has another immediate health risk: alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning can cause unconsciousness, vomiting, seizures and breathing problems. Someone who is suffering from alcohol poisoning could die without medical intervention. If you or someone you know regularly drinks to the point of falling over, passing out or getting alcohol poisoning, this is a major warning sign of alcohol abuse.

How to Avoid Alcohol Abuse During College

Alcohol abuse can be an insidious problem, hard to recognize in yourself and the people you care about. Changing the culture of drinking on college campuses could go a long way to reducing the number of people who abuse alcohol, but changing such an ingrained culture takes time. This change will need to take place on an individual and institutional level. College students will need to actively embrace a new mindset that recognizes the risks of alcohol abuse, and universities will need to have policies in place to support it. What can we do to facilitate this change and help prevent alcohol abuse in college?

  1. Education: Education is one of the essential strategies for preventing alcohol abuse. The first six weeks of a college student's freshman year are a critical time that leaves them especially vulnerable to alcohol abuse. Parents can help prepare their children for this period by actively talking with them about the risks and consequences associated with heavy drinking. Text or call your student regularly. Let them know they can reach out to you with questions. Look up what kind of educational resources your child's college or university offers. Even if your student decides to drink while at college, education will empower them to understand the difference between social drinking and binge drinking, and to know the warning signs of alcohol abuse. College is a time of learning, both in and outside of the classroom. Parents can help prepare their children for this transformative time.
  2. Find new ways to manage stress: Stress is a significant cause of binge drinking in college. Discovering alternatives to managing that stress can prevent alcohol abuse. First of all, identify the most significant source of stress. Is it the pressure to find a social circle? Is it the pressure to manage academic responsibilities? If you are a college student worried about making friends, look to extracurriculars your school offers. Join a sport or club that matches with one of your interests. You can meet people and engage in an activity that does not center on drinking. If the stress of classwork is getting to you, join a study group. Go to your professors' office hours. Concentrate on learning the material, so you are less concerned about failing. If you still need to blow off some steam after a rough academic week, try exercising or picking up a new hobby.

Asking for Help

Alcohol abuse is not uncommon. You are not alone. College is a challenging time, and we have all had to ask for help at some point. If you are struggling with this issue in college, support is available. Safely detoxing is the first step to becoming sober and reclaiming control of your life. Contact us at Diamond House Detox to learn how we can help. We personalize our approach to make sure we treat your needs. Call today for same day admittance at (800) 205-6107.

Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on April 4th, 2019.

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