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To suggest that university students are buying into the culture of partying and binge drinking as an expected part of campus life is an all too clichéd and patronizing generalization. The myth of the “party campus” does not exaggerate the existence of large-scale frosh and homecoming house parties, but it does exaggerate their occurrences and popularity.
In popular media, post-secondary institutions are still synonymous with Hollywood depictions of young people, enjoying their newfound freedom through excessive partying, cheap beer, drugs and sexual liberation.
There’s some truth in these depictions, but they are mostly stories told about a minority of students. While this myth has not influenced the behaviour of the vast majority of students, it has created a perceived norm among undergraduates. More significantly, it has skewed measurements of how much alcohol is too much.
Binge drinking — five or more drinks for men, and four or more for women in one sitting — is inevitably part of not just university life, but young adulthood as a whole. The Canadian Campus Survey in 2004 reported that 28 percent of students across Canada are heavy drinkers, and 32 percent of undergraduates meet the criteria for “drinking hazardously.”
Even underage drinking, while clearly frowned upon, is widely accepted as an essential part of the coming-of-age university experience, and few university students would argue for strict, effective steps to be taken to end this practice.
The danger of this drinking culture does not lie in an inability to see one-time excessive drinking as a threat, but in the way its complacency prevents students who regularly drink unhealthy amounts of alcohol to recognize their behaviour as problematic.
McMaster participated in the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) in 2013. The study ultimately concluded that students overestimate the norm for alcohol consumption levels on campus.
When asked about the amount of drinks participants consumed the last time they “partied,” 24 percent said they didn’t drink, 29 percent of students consumed three to five drinks, and 24 percent of students consumed six to ten drinks. When asked what they thought the “typical student at Mac” drank, students estimated that 45 percent of students consumed three to five drinks and 43 percent of students consumed six to ten drinks. This data indicates that most students drink a limited amount, but many believe the majority of McMaster students drink heavier, thus promoting a larger acceptance of binge drinking, and possibly leading to a perceived need to drink more.
The vast majority of students said that they experienced at least one of the negative consequences associated with binge drinking: getting in trouble with police, non-consensual sex, unprotected sex, physically injuring someone else, or contemplating suicide. About 25 percent of students experienced other minor, negative effects associated with drinking, such as feeling some kind of regret about something they did while drinking.
Arrive and Thrive:
Raising awareness about student behaviour, substance-based or otherwise, is an important part of many campus initiatives. Arrive and Thrive is a comprehensive McMaster project that has been funded through the Mental Health Innovation Fund provided by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. The focus of the project is to help students develop approaches to deal with mental health and addiction issues, with a focus on students who are transitioning into university.
The campaign, due for a fall launch, consists of three parts. First, Arrive and Thrive Online will launch as a questionnaire designed to help students identify their current habits and coping strategies, offer immediate feedback about how their habits compare to their peers’, and suggest further resources both online and on campus if they feel that they are experiencing difficulty. The second portion, titled Pause, will allow students to meet with a professional counsellor trained in the area of substance use and addiction on a self-referred basis. The final part of the service will introduce a series of interventions and courses to support healthy habits and coping with problematic ones.
“It’s tough because you have this perception that it’s a rampant problem and if I don’t do it, I’m not conforming to the norm. But then, you don’t want to minimize those people that are in the far side of dangerous drinking,” says Arrive and Thrive Project and Research Coordinator Allan Fein.
“Most people will have a positive and fun experience associated with drinking and alcohol, and it’s the few that we really need to focus on. How do we target those people in a way that’s not demeaning to them and not putting them down and not victimizing them or blaming them, but is helping them?” added Fein.
“It’s really about a harm reduction approach, trying to take the person and say, you know, you’re a whole person, you’re not just an alcoholic, you’re not just someone who is dealing with mental health but you are a whole person and let’s deal with you as a whole person and figure out the best way for you to be most successful.”
Dr. Catherine Munn, who is also heading the project, stresses that “people drink for a reason and the reasons are unique to each individual who drinks … It’s really about educating everyone about what is healthy drinking and what is risky or problematic drinking.”
Problematic drinking habits are linked to the motivations behind the habits. Alternatives for Youth is an organization that provides services for youth with addictions. Their Executive Director, Penny Burley, referred to the 2004 Canadian Campus survey that asked students to identify the reasons they drank.
“Largely the reasons youth identify were to be social and to celebrate … when we look at the youth that we work with, often those are the initial reasons for engaging in drinking or other substance use, but overtime, for some people, it can become about anxiety, mood issues. It can become about various mental health concerns, it can be about stress, about coping. So while in the survey there are fewer people who tend to identify that’s the reason they drink. It often becomes the reason why they continue to drink.”
Burley believes that there is a need for a widespread approach that aims to educate and raise awareness about low-risk drinking guidelines and offers alternatives. “I think there’s a responsibility as a community, as a society, to work on changing that culture somewhat. And so when I look, there are university campuses that have policies and protocols to try and shift that culture — things like having dry frosh weeks. It won’t eliminate alcohol use by any means, but it gives youth an alternative.”
An Alcoholics Anonymous volunteer, who shall remain nameless due to AA policy, shared her story with The Silhouette, and the concerns she has about young people lacking the resources to recognize problematic alcohol consumption. She described what she felt separated her personal experience with alcohol from that of others around her. “If I was partying and drinking, there would be people who come to a point and they’d say ‘I’m going to bed, or I’m going home, or I’ve had enough,’ but not me. I was always looking for that next drink, always thinking about that next drink.”
“I used to come home and I’d think I was going to the bar on Friday night and even before I got there — I remember one time I was sitting there — and I was thinking about the night and I remember saying, ‘oh, I could just feel the rush of that drink and what it was going to do for me and I could talk to people and you know, be more friendly and open and not be an introvert,’ … it was a high for me even before I got the drink.”
She further stressed the importance of recognizing a problem, “It’s physical, it’s mental, it’s spiritual for us, you know. We don’t have anything left because alcohol takes everything away. And if you’re younger you have to think you’re going to save yourself all those years, all that pain, but you can’t force it on anyone. If they’re not ready, they’re not ready.”
When Arrive and Thrive makes its official launch this fall season, it will come as an invitation for students to be conscious about the choices they make. Its aim isn’t to tell students that the decisions they are making are wrong, or that there is something inherently shameful about these decisions. It will offer online questionnaires, professional help, courses and extended services in an attempt to reach parts of the student population that may be otherwise left without the outlets to ask the right questions, and seek help if they need to.
For additional information and guidelines for safe drinking, this brochure by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse is a good starting point. Additional information about the CSAA is available on their website.