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Alcoholism in University—The Normalization of Binge Drinking

By: Carol Morriscey

Alcohol Addiction or the College Experience?

Students file into their dorms and the liquor stores of university towns begin to bustle as frosh week begins. The university experience and life on campus have become synonymous with binge drinking. In Nova Scotia, over 50% of students report heavily drinking at least once a month. Further, a quarter of university students nationally report negative academic consequences related to their drinking. Most concerning, one fifth of university students meet the diagnostic criteria of an alcohol use disorder. However, despite these alarming statistics many university students typically do not classify their drinking as problematic. They see their drinking patterns as normative for university life. So where do we draw the line between the typical college experience, which involves drinking and having a good time, and alcohol abuse and addiction?

Binge Drinking in University Students

Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks for males and four or more drinks for females within a two –hour time span. The majority of university students who drink alcohol report that they have engaged in binge drinking at some time in the past month. Interestingly, university students’ perceptions of binge drinking are not in line with the actual definition of binge drinking. They define binge drinking as a much higher quantity of drinks in a certain time period. Further, students who engage in heavy drinking define binge drinking as an even greater number of drinks than those who do not drink as heavily. This indicates a gap in knowledge, which may contribute to the high rates of binge drinking in the university population.

Consequences of Binge Drinking

The most immediate risks of binge drinking include injury, assault, arrest, and even death. These are experienced by many students, and present a growing problem for Canadian universities. In the past decade, there have been a number of alcohol-related deaths on university campuses across Canada, illustrating the severity of binge drinking. There are long-term negative effects, as well. Frequent binge drinking can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and liver disease. And it appears that the drinking patterns developed during undergraduate degrees, which once dissipated with the introduction of jobs, families and responsibilities, now seem to linger through-out one’s life. Unfortunately, this long-term binge drinking increases the risks of the health related consequences, as well as increases the chances of dependence and addiction developing.

Changing the University Culture

Many universities are taking action to diminish the assumed relationship between university life and heavy drinking. The relationship is inherent in many student activities, which revolve around drinking. Therefore, universities are introducing dry events, activities and sober spaces for students to go. In addition to encouraging sobriety, universities should work toward educating their students on the realities of what constitutes binge drinking and the negative consequences. By providing an array of opportunities to avoid binge drinking, as well as lessening the gap in knowledge, perhaps the university campus can become a safer place.

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