There are real-life horror stories of students dying from alcohol poisoning and horrific road accidents caused by drunk driving. With all the risks, binge drinking has become a rising concern for North America’s post-secondary students.
Know your limits. It’s an old adage, but is there really a way to drill that into students?
How many drinks constitute a binge?
Rachel VanderSluis, a fourth-year Carleton University business student and a student representative for CU Don’t Know, Carleton’s alcohol awareness campaign, said she thinks there is a campus culture that supports binge drinking.
“I would consider binge drinking to be getting really drunk really fast, and really often, and relying on alcohol to reach a certain state of inhibition, despite the risks involved,” she said via email.
According to Patty Allen, a mental health nurse at Carleton’s Health and Counselling Services, binge drinking is consuming more than five drinks in one sitting.
Vicki Bowman, a representative for CU Don’t Know, said there are many Carleton students that partake in binge drinking.
“Although the majority of our students do not choose to binge drink, there are still a significant number of students that report that they are consuming more than five drinks the last time they partied,” Bowman said via email.
University drinking culture
According to Dana Dragomir, the co-ordinator for the Rethink the Drink Talkback Tour, a national health initiative that aims to combat binge drinking on Canadian post-secondary campuses, binge drinking is very normalized at university and college.
Sushmitha Laguduva, a first-year cognitive science student at Carleton, said the popularity of going to bars and clubs to drink is part of an overall drinking culture.
“Everyone’s always excited about going to parties [and] everyone wants to try alcohol especially since now’s the time everyone becomes legal,” Laguduva said. “A lot of [campus] clubs have social gatherings in pubs and places.”
But Jacob Straker, a fourth-year communications student at Carleton, said he thinks other universities, like Queen’s University and the University of Western Ontario, especially if they have wet Frosh weeks, have more of a drinking culture than Carleton.
VanderSluis said she thinks students have an invincible mentality that sometimes leads to excessive drinking.
“In general there seems to be a culture in support of counterproductive behaviours for university students,” she said. “You see it on memes on social media and hear it in conversations all the time—people boasting about being hungover hours before an exam, prioritizing pizza and wine over exercise, glorifying burnout instead of a good night’s sleep.”
Allen said that over time, she has seen drinking habits change among youth.
“In the last five years I’ve seen work hard, play hard . . . people used to go out and drink daily but they didn’t premeditate the drunk,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily stress management as it was socializing. They could do that for four out of five nights.”
But now, Allen said students are drinking to get drunk and excessively drinking before they go on a night out.
“It isn’t about socializing, it’s about getting wasted,” she said.
According to Allen, binge drinking is an example of high-risk behaviour and poor decision making seen among university students because the part of the brain in control of these operations—the frontal lobe—isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s.
But she said the biggest concerns about binge drinking are the negative consequences associated with intoxication.
“The trouble with binge drinking is it does put you at risk for all kinds of things,” Allen said. “What if you pass out on Bronson, [have] unprotected sex, what if you get in a fight. Those things wouldn’t happen if you were sober.”
According to Allen, many Carleton students face issues with alcohol poisoning, misdemeanor reports, and getting in trouble at Oliver’s Pub, the campus bar, or on their residence floors.
She also said alcohol has a high potential for substance abuse, though it may appear to relieve stress or mental health issues.
“It doesn’t start off that way. You seek something that gives you comfort, makes you forget, makes you not feel,” she said. “Initially they work, but if you become addicted you start to lose motivation, life patterns start to suffer.”
Carleton’s alcohol awareness. . .
According to Bowman, Carleton has an alcohol awareness strategy that aims to support a responsible drinking culture and eliminate binge drinking habits among students.
There are 17 recommendations in the strategy that address issues like creating alcohol-free residence floors, dry frosh events, and limiting alcohol marketing on campus.
“We recognized the need for a strategy to prevent some of the tragic incidents that have been seen in Canada and the [United States], [such as] student deaths that were the direct result of overuse of alcohol,” Bowman said.
“They’re trying to just increase awareness [that] bad things can happen when you have too much [to drink],” Allen said. “But it doesn’t have much effect on people with an established pattern or mental health issues or family issues.”According to Allen, most alcohol awareness campaigns focus on the risks of irresponsible drinking habits.
But Allen said Carleton’s alcohol awareness strategy isn’t an anti-drinking campaign. The focus is more on drinking in moderation.
“It’s never been about getting students to stop [drinking],” she said. “I’ve always had the philosophy of harm reduction.”
Another element of Carleton’s strategy is the CU Don’t Know awareness campaign.
“The purpose of our campaign is to encourage students to know their limits and help them learn something about drinking that perhaps they didn’t know before,” VanderSluis said. “We have [information] on everything from pacing drinks, knowing a standard drink for different types of alcohol, the effects of alcohol on health, etc.”
VanderSluis said although CU Don’t Know provides a lot of resources, more work needs to be done through workshops, self-assessments on peer influence, and health promotion.
“There needs to be that emphasis of being self-aware and recognizing situations that might set you off to drink more, and the discipline to either avoid or take control of those situations,” she said.
“In general there seems to be a culture in support of counterproductive behaviours for university students. You see it on memes on social media and hear it in conversations all the time—people boasting about being hungover hours before an exam, prioritizing pizza and wine over exercise, glorifying burnout instead of a good night’s sleep.”
—Rachel VanderSluis, fourth-year business student and CU Don’t Know peer helper
. . . and beyond
Dragomir said the Rethink the Drink Tour is partnered with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse to help post-secondary institutions create awareness about low-risk drinking guidelines because every amount of alcohol carries some risk.
She said it came out of the CBC documentary “Girls Night Out,” which looked at binge drinking among women.
“After it aired we were looking for a way to make the impact greater,” Dragomir said.
The tour plans to discuss party culture and responsible drinking habits with university and college students across Canada, including Carleton students.
She said the tour is just the start of the conversation needed to tackle binge drinking.
The impact of awareness
But there are some positive trends, according to Bowman.
“When comparing information from our survey results over the years, the use of responsible drinking strategies is moving in a positive direction and more students are indicating that they are choosing to drink less or to not drink at all,” she said.
In fact, according to CU Don’t Know, the 2013 National College Health Assessment found that 57 per cent of Carleton students report drinking less than 10 times per month, and 27 per cent drink rarely or not at all.
But Straker said he doesn’t think alcohol awareness campaigns are all that beneficial.
“They’ve done nothing for me. Honestly, I think that if you learned your limit, those ‘programs’ are useless,” Straker said via Facebook. “That being said, some people are alcoholics without knowing it.”
Laguduva also said campaigns like CU Don’t Know haven’t impacted her because she isn’t aware of them.
“I actually haven’t seen any posters or gotten any emails regarding alcohol awareness– maybe I’m just oblivious,” she said.
But Allen added she has seen an overall positive impact from alcohol awareness campaigns on Carleton’s campus.
“No one thing is going to change one person’s behaviour,” Allen said. “[The] hope is that people are at least making informed decisions.”
SIGNS OF ALCOHOL POISONING
M ental confusion
S noring or gasping for air
T hrowing up
E rratic breathing
L oss of consciousness
P aleness or blueness of skin
If you suspect alcohol poisoning, call 9-1-1.
—The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism