College Binge Drinking is a Culture Problem – But Early Intervention is Promising
Alcohol – it has been called the most commonly used psychoactive drug in the world. While it is perfectly legal after the age of 21, many young people are given access at younger ages. The culture surrounding drinking for young people can make them extremely vulnerable to serious abuse disorders.
In the past 2 years, researchers have been looking more and more at what could be the biggest gateway drug for young adults, leading them to try other illicit substances such as tobacco, marijuana, and other drugs. A study by the Journal of School Health and published by the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2016 noted, “Alcohol is the most commonly used substance, and the majority of polysubstance using respondents consumed alcohol prior to tobacco or marijuana initiation.”
“Alcohol was the most widely used substance among respondents, initiated earliest, and also the first substance most commonly used in the progression of substance use,” the study, highlighted in The Washington Post, said. 54% of 12th graders initiated drug use by consuming alcohol first, second to 32% using tobacco first and third to 14% using marijuana first.
Binge Drinking is a Powerful Force
Alcohol can be a serious gateway drug. Then why start drinking? In U.S. colleges, the culture of not just drinking but binge drinking remains a powerful force that young people need to work hard to navigate and avoid. “Drinking too much too often can lead to physical tolerance, alcohol dependence, and addiction,” Alcohol.org warns. “The younger a person is when they start consuming alcohol, the more likely they are to struggle with alcohol abuse or addiction later in life. Students who begin drinking while underage, including during social events in college, put themselves at risk of a lifetime of harm.”
Binge drinking remains a pervasive pressure for young people and continues to happen throughout the 4+ academic years despite millions of investments made towards research and efforts to curtail the habit on campuses. A 2014 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education addresses the epidemic, pointing out that not only has the rate of college students binge drinking remained around 40% for 20 years, but it is showing signs of increasing.
The trend begins in high school, when 46.8% of students report drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. This habit becomes more pronounced when, by college, 40.2% of students report binge drinking in the past 30 days (defined has having 5 or more alcoholic drinks in a row).
The consequences are damaging. 25% of college students report that drinking harms their academic performance, but only 29% of colleges prohibit alcohol use on campus.
While many colleges have educational programs implemented to warn students on the dangers of drinking and binge drinking, researchers say simply dispersing educational materials is not enough. Active interventions on these behaviors are the most effective means for curtailing them.
In 2002, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism began deploying a series of efforts to help curtail college drinking and binge drinking. The result was the NIAA-supported Task Force on College Drinking, “designed to help health professionals to identify and intervene with students who drink above recommended limits or who are experiencing alcohol-related problems.”
But universities can’t always fulfill the interventions alone. On-going support for a student susceptible to alcohol abuse or in the midst of battling alcohol abuse is crucial to their recovery, sobriety and success. A combination of support systems, education and active testing can help keep a struggling college student on track with their health and academic achievement. Programming that provides peer mentors, group support, drug testing for accountability, individual counseling and active communication from supportive family members can be the tool that enables a student the strength and support to continue their education without being pulled to the sidelines by the university drinking culture. By treating the abuse at a young age, intervention can save a person from a lifetime of addiction.