What Two Addiction Experts Have to Say About Risky Drinking at College
It’s no secret that risky drinking, or drinking alcohol at levels that put a person at risk of health problems, is prevalent among students at colleges and universities. CASAColumbia has summarized more than 20 years of research to prove it, with two of its major reports finding that excessive college drinking is too often accepted as a “rite of passage.”
To get the perspective of addiction experts on this topic, we spoke with Clayton Neighbors, PhD, Professor, Director of Social Psychology and Director of the Social Influences and Health Behaviors Lab at the University of Houston and CASAColumbia’s President & CEO, Samuel Ball, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University, to ask them questions about risky drinking at college.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that college students have in terms of defining “normal” drinking?
Dr. Neighbors: College students definitely overestimate. They overestimate how much drinking is actually happening on campus and how much their peers approve of it. College students think drinking excessively is normal, but in reality most people aren’t drinking to excess. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism define “excessive” as drinking seven drinks per week and three drinks on a single day for women. Whereas for men, excessive drinking is considered 14 drinks per week and four drinks on a single day.
It also is important to realize that friends have a tremendous influence on drinking habits. Since many heavy drinkers socialize together, their perceptions change and it becomes the norm to take part in risky drinking.
What are some signs to look for when trying to determine if a friend has a problem?
Dr. Neighbors: For college students, academic consequences are often a sign that someone has a problem. For example, if they’re missing class because they’re hung over or didn’t study because they were drinking. Drinking in the morning is also a sign, as well as a pattern of setting a goal of a limited amount of drinks, and continually maxing out the goal.
If a student believes his or her friend may be a risky user how should they go about talking to the friend about it?
Dr. Ball: Being honest, open and direct is critical to getting the message across to a friend who has been drinking too much. You should try to talk about it in a way that conveys realistic feedback and concern, and avoids creating defensiveness or a debate: “I noticed lately you’ve been drinking heavily, more than most people. Is everything okay? I’m worried about you getting hurt.”
It’s important to have the conversation when your friend is sober and not when he or she is drunk or hungover. If he or she gets argumentative, it’s okay to simply restate that you are concerned and end the conversation. Sometimes people cut down or seek help for their drinking because enough people have raised these concerns. Unfortunately, students who drink heavily often don’t take active steps toward safer behavior until after they have experienced a significant negative consequence on campus that requires them to receive an evaluation and brief intervention. A brief intervention involves receiving personalized feedback about a person’s substance use and an assessment of his or her level of risk.
If you think your friend is in danger of hurting themselves or others because of their drinking, confidentially bring the issue to the attention of a trusted Residential Advisor or Health Services staff member.
What are some tips to reduce risky drinking in the college community?
Dr. Neighbors: For students who choose to drink, I recommend using Protective Behavior Strategies, which include putting a nonalcoholic beverage in your red solo cup, pacing your drinks and adding extra ice to your drinks to water them down. These strategies can help reduce risky drinking and won’t make you stand out as someone who is “not drinking.”
Dr. Ball: Campuses should enforce the drinking rules that they have put in place and not wait for an emergency to take place before intervening with a student. All heavily intoxicated students and any underage students in possession of alcohol should be mandated to receive a screening and brief intervention. There are several proven interventions to reduce drinking, but unfortunately most colleges have not adopted these approaches.
When a drinking problem is detected that needs more than one to three counseling sessions, then a referral for more extended outpatient treatment should be made. In more severe cases, when outpatient treatment cannot keep the student safe, taking a medical leave to receive inpatient treatment may be recommended. It is important to treat excessive drinking as a health issue, rather than only a disciplinary one and to get students who are at risk the help they need.
Again, it’s important for campus alcohol policies, including penalties/sanctions, to be created and enforced consistently to promote the health and safety of all students. It is essential to educate faculty, staff, parents and students about how to identify and address substance use. Greater attention should be paid to promoting non-alcohol social and recreational activities and providing expanded support for students experiencing stress related to the academic, social, and family expectations and transitions associated with college.
Clayton Neighbors, PhD
Clayton Neighbors is a Professor and Director of Social Psychology and Director of the Social Influences and Health Behaviors Lab at the University of Houston
Samuel Ball, PhD
Samuel Ball is President and Chief Executive Officer at CASAColumbia
and Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University