What starts as a friendly game of beer pong freshman year could eventually lead to a life of alcohol addiction.
Becky Forward, a freshman art major, said going out and drinking at parties near Main Campus is a relatively inexpensive and easy thing to do on the weekends. She also complained that there aren’t many alternate activities to do in this particular area.
“The neighborhood is so dangerous, you can’t really travel around North Philly,” Forward said.
On any given weekend, one will most likely find intoxicated college students roaming the streets, in bars, at parties or in their homes. Whether it’s something you as a student do or don’t do, drinking can be as much of a college tradition as painting your body in school colors before a big game.
“Substances of abuse have a history dating back to the history of man,” said Dr. Tom Gould, associate professor of psychology and head of Neurobiological Investigations of Learning & Addiction Lab.
However, the fact that the phrase “I’m an alcoholic,” is jokingly thrown around in college draws attention to the question of whether or not college drinking habits can lead to a more serious problem, like dependence or addiction, down the line.
Dr. Jeremy Frank, coordinator of the Campus Alcohol and Substance Awareness Unit of the Tuttleman Counseling Center, said that in the past 10 years, college presidents have been in agreement on the fact that alcohol problems are the No. 1 health problem among college students.
This isn’t to say that the problem is so big it’s getting out of hand. Binge-drinking rates have probably stayed about the same since the wine-vessel days, Dr. Frank said. Nonetheless, the problem receives its fair share of attention.
So why is binge drinking so heavily associated with college? There are a number of reasons, including the classic case of a student leaving home for the first time.
“Essentially, the college atmosphere is right for this type of exploratory-type behavior because past constraints during the individual’s life, parental guidance, a more rigid school environment – they’re gone, so there’s a lot more freedom,” Gould said, “and there’s a lot more opportunity for exploring different paths.”
Dr. Bradley Conner, assistant professor of psychology with appointment in clinical and developmental areas, said in addition to this culture change, many people reach the legal drinking age while they’re in college. This mixing of people who can legally buy alcohol with those who cannot increases availability and makes drinking easier to do than it may have been before college.
But does the increase of accessibility and use put students at risk of developing an alcohol problem? Gould said not everyone who tries or uses a substance will abuse it or develop an addiction. Environment and genetics are both influential factors.
“Addiction” is also a tricky word to define, Gould said.
“When you look at addiction, it’s beyond just abuse. It’s to the point where the substance use is basically controlling and running their lives,” he said.
Aside from college students experiencing more freedom, other elements play a role in the development of an addiction.
“I view addiction as a large warehouse with many doors. You can get into it in many different ways,” Gould said.
Repeated use and other high-risk behaviors are a way to get into it. There are also different risk periods throughout an individual’s life. Adolescence to early adulthood is a higher risk period for an addiction to start laying down the framework.
Even between the ages of 18 and 25, the brain is still forming. The area that controls decision-making and impulse-control is not fully developed yet, so abusing drugs can affect these areas, Gould said.
“These substances that people ingest are fairly powerful drugs, and if the brain is still developing, they can change the brain to produce later problems in life,” Gould said.
Alcohol is also an anxiolytic, which means it reduces anxiety. People may use it to self-medicate themselves and ritualize this process, Gould said.
Frank said it is important for people not to drink when they are angry or sad because they may develop a coping mechanism that becomes ritualized.
Everyone has heard of alcoholism, but not many college students would actually consider themselves potential candidates for the problem.
“Young people feel somewhat invincible and just haven’t seen the consequences of alcohol use that older people tend to see,” Frank said.
In the long run, college drinking habits may not cause too many problems. Conner said most kids will age out of it and go on with the rest of their lives without alcohol problems. However, he also said a sizable percentage of the population will develop alcohol problems that stem from their excessive use in college.
Research supports that those who consume the most alcohol in college are most likely to have severe problems. This is only a correlation, though. One must consider other things about the individuals who drink the most in college that can increase the likelihood that they’ll form an addiction.
So even though you’re cracking open a few cans of PBR tonight, it does not necessarily mean you’ll be checking into rehab tomorrow. But the college-alcohol connection is something to think about.
It is important to seek professional help with an alcohol addiction, Gould added, because the substance is powerful, and quitting cold turkey can lead to seizures or even death.
For students who think they may have problems with substance use, Tuttlemna’s CASA Unit offers confidential individual- and group-therapy programs that are based on harm reduction, not abstinence.
Dana Ricci can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.