College -- where drinking is (not) part of the social life

By , Education editor of The Christian Science Monitor

For most students, it's got to be one of the hardest adjustments of all time. It's tough enough just leaving home and familiar territory. It's really difficult to go from being a "high achieving" senior to a lowly "will-I- make-it" freshman.

On top of all the other adjustments is the one to a social life in many ways diametrically opposed to what you, your friends, and your family considered acceptable.

If you drank in high school, you did so without the approval of school authorities, and probably without home approval, either. You had to sneak around to do it; had to steal it or get someone older to supply you; had to keep one eye out for the police.

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But, bang! You get to college and everyone is pushing drinks on you. Beer, wine, hard liquor -- they flow in dorms, in fraternity and sorority houses, in local bars, in on-campus pubs, and on a few campuses in the student union. As one alumni magazine stated: ". . . drinking is part of the social life."

Oh, yes, you'll be treated to a few "alcohol education" lectures (with slides or film and a Q&A session), in which you're warned about the chemical dangers of alcohol in bloodstreams and the like, and about the alarming (and growing) rate of drunken-driving injuries and fatalities.

But you'll almost always be exhorted to "drink responsibly"; that is, not to abuse ("use, don't abuse") alcohol.

And some college authorities will serve you wine and cheese; some will provide kegs of beer at many university- sponsored events; some grant liquor privileges to social clubs; and most do little or no policing of school parties, separating out those of legal drinking age from those who are not. (This is particularly true in states like Georgia and Massachusetts, where the legal drinking age recently moved from 18 to 19.)

In other words, you spent the first 17, 18, or 19 years of your life alcohol-free -- or at least allegedly alcohol-free; yet that first step onto a college campus, and all prior restraints are waived. And many of the very authorities who previously exhorted you to purity now expect you to join the adult world, where -- as they argue -- it's "natural" to drug yourself with alcohol.

But something very serious has been happening. Drunken students are not only ruining their bodies and their academic life, but are physically destroying their surroundings. The relatively harmless prank of throwing rolls of toilet paper onto the trees from the roof of the frat house (still done, of course) has escalated to ripping the sink out of the bathroom wall and heaving it through a sliding glass door.

And the student suicide rate has climed, with nearly all such deaths alcohol-related. That is, some measure of self- respect has been drugged out of these troubled students, and, lacking the right counseling and loving support, they have taken this fatal step.

The situation has become bad enough that you'll find that drinking rules are tightening on many campuses:

* No parties where drinking is the only activity.

* A nonalcoholic drink must be available.

* Food must be served.

* Some entertainment must be going on; e.g., dancing, listening to rock. . . .

* If you're caught by local police for drunken driving or disturbing the peace, the college dean will not get you off.

* You'll be fined, and possibly expelled, for wanton destruction of college property.

I'm sure that most of you reading this article know the statistics:

* About half of all high school students say they have had at least one experimental drink.

* About 10 percent of all high schoolers admit to daily consumption of alcohol and other drugs.

* About 90 percent of all college students say they drink "occasionally."

And now the startler:

* More than 50 percent of college students claim to be steady drinkers, with some 70 or 80 percent of these students admitting to being problem drinkers.

What's the answer to all this?

According to many physicians and campus-based alcohol counselor, it is to teach students to be responsible drinkers -- to consider that drinking is part of social life, that drinking is natural.

But you'll not hear that from those who have been giving treatments to alcohol and drug abusers.

"Drink responsibly! What riot! It's irresponsible to drink."

That from a counselor who says she's "seen and heard it all."

And you'll not, of course, hear that from AA workers. Their goal for everyone with whom they work is an alcohol-free life. As one former addict put it: "Freedom! I love it."

What can the Monitor suggest after researching the question?

Make all college campuses alcohol-free. Our higher-education establishments -- as institutions -- have a drinking problem. They have got to kick the habit. Can you go for one day without serving alcohol to students, staff, or faculty? Try it. Do it. Then the next day, go without again. Learn what real freedom is.

Make it not only illegal to serve liquor on campus, but develop institutional outrage at the very suggestion that alcohol and academia have anything in common.

Parents, make an alcohol-free campus a condition for paying college tuition and boarding fees. Students, cooperate with college authorities and do all your drinking in legally licensed establishments off campus. Police, do your part in finding and fining alcohol offenders on and off campus. Alumni, be willing to acknowledge you were wrong when you made drinking a part of college social life.

"The best prevention is abstention." That from a college counselor newly saddened by a death from a university-sponsored chug-a-lug party.

We like the approach of one New England college -- the alcoholism counselor is on the second floor of the infirmary building. This makes it possible for the problem drinker to go in and out "anonymously."

Every college should provide a similar treatment center.

Drinking, as any college students knows, is not the problem. It's something else, some problem for which a depressant seems a ready -- if not a healing -- solution.

But it's healing that is needed, not a substitute for healing.

And this brings us to our final suggestion. Those free of alcohol dependence must offer their healing help to those so afflicted.

Let every college offer student alcohol counselors to local junior and senior high schools. And let every graduate school and department offer substance-abuse counselors to undergraduates.

Make this a regular part of campus social life.

Colleges: Don't wait until the alcohol-related vandalism bill is exorbitant, or wait for an alcohol-related car accident to shock the campus, or for a double suicide to rock the halls of academe, or for a faculty member to crash in public.

Take off that denial mask so common to the closet alcoholic -- admit to your drinking problem -- and stop drinking.

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