Vidyya Medical News Service
Volume 6 Issue 243 Published - 14:00 UTC 08:00 EST 30-Aug-2004 Next Update - 14:00 UTC 08:00 EST 31-Aug-2004
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Preventing college-age alcohol abuse

It's the time of year when young adults go off to college to be exposed to many new experiences. Unfortunately, one of them may be heavy drinking. Alcohol abuse is now a widespread problem on the nation's college campuses. In the short run, it puts students at risk for car accidents, date rape, and academic, medical, and legal problems. In the long run, it may establish a pattern of drinking that can lead to alcoholism and serious health problems.

Studies show that four out of five college students drink alcohol. Two out of five report binge drinking (defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more for women in one sitting). One in five students reports three or more binge episodes in the prior two weeks.

"For many students drinking is seen as a rite of passage, as part of having fun, of lowering social inhibitions," says Dr. Vivian Faden, acting associate director of the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research at NIH's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). "Other kids may self-medicate with alcohol to reduce stress or cope with depression."

Whether a student drinks heavily depends on a host of factors, including a family history of alcohol abuse, the student's experience with drinking in high school, and psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.

Problems with College Drinking

"People are not aware of the size of the problems that occur with college drinking," says Dr. Mark Goldman, associate director of NIAAA. "They hear about an unfortunate accident, but they think of it as something that happens rarely. The point is, it doesn't happen rarely."

An extensive three-year investigation by the Task Force on College Drinking, commissioned by the NIAAA, produced the 2002 landmark report A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges. The report estimated that 1,400 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol use, either because of drinking and driving or from the toxic effects of alcohol itself. Over 70,000 students are the victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. Another 500,000 are unintentionally injured in alcohol-related incidents, and 600,000 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.

"If one puts these numbers together and keeps in mind that there are roughly eight million college students in the United States at any one time," says Dr. Goldman, "this means that a large percentage of students is suffering the ill effects of college-age drinking."

There are still more consequences to college student alcohol abuse. Students who binge drink are more likely to have unprotected sex, and 100,000 reported having been too intoxicated to know if they even consented to sex. Not surprisingly, drinking also affects academics, contributing to students missing classes, doing poorly on exams and papers, and receiving low grades.

Alcohol abuse among students also leads to property damage on campus and in surrounding communities. In addition, drinking affects non-drinking students, as noisy parties disrupt their study time, make it hard to sleep in dorms, and force them to deal with intoxicated students.

Prevention on Campus

Researchers have found that the most important step in stopping alcohol abuse is changing the culture of college drinking. More and more colleges and universities are dealing with college-age drinking through prevention education and counseling services. Strategies that have proven the most effective include addressing students' alcohol-related attitudes and behaviors. This can involve challenging student beliefs about the likely effects of alcohol (that it will loosen inhibitions, for example) and their often-erroneous perception that their peers drink more than they do.

Giving students nonjudgmental advice about their drinking has also helped. NIAAA research shows that college students who get even one counseling session offering feedback on their drinking habits will reduce their alcohol consumption.

What Parents Can Do

Parents should get involved while their children are still looking at colleges, according to Dr. Faden. "When parents visit colleges, it's important to ask questions about alcohol policies and the campus culture," she says. Dr. Goldman adds, "I know of schools that have changed their drinking policies [due to the influence of parents], and as a result have upgraded their student body."

Dr. Goldman advises that "parents should not accept the idea that this is a college student rite of passage, but rather that this is a serious issue and pressure needs to be put on the schools to pay attention to this." Parents can also help by encouraging their sons and daughters to take responsibility to make healthy choices with their lives, and by staying involved in their children's lives even when they're away at college. Says Dr. Faden, "It's important for parents to talk to their kids, and often."

Written Richard Currey

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