Posted by Amanda Miller, LCSW

Alcohol is different than other drugs. Drinking is not only socially acceptable, but it is widely glorified by the media and embraced by many social and professional circles. Drinking culture is celebrated on college campuses, and is a central part of tailgates and many other social events. This blog entry will explore the risks and consequences of underage binge drinking, and will provide support for those who want to prevent, identify, and seek treatment for alcohol problems before dependency sets in.

Alcohol dependency is gradual and sneaks up over a longer period of time than with other drugs. For a closer look at how dependency creeps up on people who don’t even realize they are developing a drinking problem, check out this video “The Truth About Alcohol” :

Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to .08 g/dL, which typically results after the consumption of 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more for women within a couple hours.

Repeated binge drinking is a precursor to serious issues with alcohol. Please see this website to identify The Signs of Problematic Binge Drinking:

If you are wondering whether you or a loved one has a drinking problem, please review the following guidelines from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which classifies Different Levels of Drinking Problems:
1) Hazardous Use is defined as high-risk drinking, which is any binge drinking as outlined above, or the consumption of over 14 drinks per week for men, or consumption of more than 7 drinks per week for women.
2) Harmful Use is when consequences accompany hazardous use.
3) Dependency is defined as compulsive use, which is also known as alcoholism. “In young adults, as the progression goes on, there is a correlation within their emotional life. For this age group, emotional dependency is a primary concern. Some young adults don’t yet have physical cravings for alcohol, so they don’t feel they are addicted, when in fact they have compulsive emotional use. When they have depression or anxiety, alcohol becomes their mood-altering drug.” (Stephen Andrews, LADC. Director of the Health Education and Training Institute, Portland, Maine).

What are the warning signs of developing a dependency on Alcohol?

As mentioned earlier, alcohol dependency (alcoholism) is a progressive disease. “Most people are unaware that they are crossing the line from habit to addiction until it is too late for them to stop on their own.”
The classic signs that recreational drinking is morphing into alcoholism include:
A very strong urge or craving for alcohol
* The inability to stop drinking once you have started
* The onset of withdrawal symptoms, such as shakiness, nausea and sweating, when you have not had a drink for a while
* The need to drink larger amounts of alcohol to overcome the tolerance your body has built up”.

What are the risks of college students developing a drinking problem?

  • For minors, (under the age of 21) any amount of drinking is associated with legal, health, social, academic, and other consequences.

*Unfortunately, alcoholism is strongly linked to underage drinking. According to a Boston University School of Public Health and Youth Alcohol Prevention Center study, “The risk of alcohol dependence increases with each year before age 21 that people start drinking.” When drinking onset starts as early as 14, 47% of the study participants became alcoholics during their life. Conversely, the study found that when people waited until age 21 or later to start drinking, only 9 percent became dependent on alcohol.

*For over two decades, the rates of college-age binge drinking have been very high:
Approximately 2 out of every 5 college students of all ages (more than 40 percent) reported binge drinking at least once in the 2 weeks prior. ( A survey by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

*A NY Times article “Why Colleges Haven’t Stopped Binge Drinking” states that “fewer than half of colleges consistently enforce their alcohol policies at tailgates and in on-campus housing”:

  • Binge drinking can be particularly damaging to college students struggling with loneliness and depression. Excessive drinking will only worsen these feelings, and can lead to cyclical drinking behavior.
    Other reasons college students turn to alcohol include:
    Stress
    Anxiety
    Insecurity
    Desire to fit in
    Relationship trauma

What are the health risks of binge drinking?

The center for Disease Control outlines the following serious health risks of binge drinking:

  • Unintentional injuries such as car crashes, falls, burns, and alcohol poisoning.
  • Violence including homicide, suicide, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Unintended pregnancy and poor pregnancy outcomes, including miscarriage and stillbirth.
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome.
  • Chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and liver disease.
  • Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.
  • Memory and learning problems.
  • Alcohol dependence

Tip For Parents:

Your son is headed to college, there are ways you can help prepare him and support him to stay clear of developing a drinking problem:
Honest and Open Communication:
Share your life stories and lessons learned from your own time in college. Parents who take care of their own health and are honest and open in their discussions of their own past struggles with alcohol decrease the chance of their children suffering the same problems. “The best prevention wisdom is: ‘When a young adult is connected to family, community, and peers, and those people in their lives live by a healthy set of standards, the young adult will bend but will not break, out of respect for those individuals’. Every single prevention program in this country comes down to that phrase.” (Stephen Andrews, LADC).
For Parents: Try to maintain respect for your son’s autonomy when addressing your concerns. Maintain a heart-felt tone to encourage them to stay in open communication with you.

For Students:

Be informed of binge-drinking risks prior to the start of college:
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, college years are an intense time for binge-drinking. “Although the majority of students come to college already having some experience with alcohol, certain aspects of college life, such as unstructured time, the widespread availability of alcohol, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws, and limited interactions with parents and other adults, can intensify the problem. In fact, college students have higher binge-drinking rates and a higher incidence of driving under the influence of alcohol than their non-college peers. The party-culture on many college campus encourages under-age binge drinking. Make sure you know the risks involved with binge drinking before you even step foot on campus:

Stay in close contact, especially during the beginning of freshman year:
“The first 6 weeks of freshman year are a vulnerable time for heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences because of student expectations and social pressures at the start of the academic year.” (niaa.nih.gov, College Fact Sheet) Given the risk factors, the beginning of Freshman year is an important time to stay in contact with family. Talk opening about classes, roommates, friends, weekend plans and any challenges with adjustment.

Be informed of the life-threatening consequences of underage college drinking. Check-out the following YEARLY stats, which leaves no room for denial of the life threatening risks and consequences of underage college drinking. The NIAA presents the following research:

Death
About 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die per year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor-vehicle crashes.

This article takes a chilling look at toxic aspects of fraternity culture in this report of Tim Piazza’s recent death due to alcohol-related hazing at Penn State.

Assault
About 696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking—each year.

Sexual Assault
About 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape, each year.

Academic Problems
About 1 in 4 college students report academic consequences from drinking,
including missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall. In a national survey of college students, binge drinkers who consumed alcohol at least 3 times per week were roughly 6 times more likely than those who drank but never binged to perform poorly on a test or project as a result of drinking (40 percent vs.7 percent) and 5 times more likely to have missed a class (64 percent vs. 12 percent).

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
About 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for an AUD.

Countless Other Consequences
These include suicide attempts, health problems, injuries, unsafe sex, and driving under the influence of alcohol, as well as vandalism, property damage, and involvement with the police.

If you have concerns about your own or a loved one’s drinking that is negatively affecting health or mental well-being, Seek Treatment from a Licensed Professional. If preferred, one can also find a provider through their health insurance, which will list In-Network Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselors. Students can seek confidential treatment at their College Health Center.

Sources Cited
https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/CollegeFactSheet/CollegeFactSheet.pdf
https://www.projectknow.com/research/stages-of-alcoholism/
https://www.addictioncenter.com/alcohol/binge-drinking/
http://www.hazelden.org/web/public/prev60807.page
https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm