It was early in the university year and Samantha, a first-year student, had been enrolled for only few weeks when she was invited to a party in her dormitory.
At first, she had “just a few beers.”
As the party progressed, she was offered a shot of vodka. A small group of women and men were making a game out of drinking the shots. Samantha joined in and managed, by witness accounts, to put away nearly 25 shots. By the time the party ended, Samantha needed help getting back to her dorm room, where she passed out. Her friends assumed she would “sleep it off.” But the next morning, they found her dead from alcohol poisoning.
This death and many more that take place on university and college campuses prompted Dr Dwayne Proctor of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a Princeton-based organisation dedicated to improving health and health care, to ask, “How many more students must die before we decide to stop treating binge drinking as a collegiate rite of passage and confront it as the serious public-health threat that it is?”
If binge drinking were a disease that caused hundreds of deaths, tens of thousands of injuries, thousands of sexual assaults and thousands more arrests each year, you can be certain the response from the public and government would be massive and comprehensive.
For college administrators, students, parents, alumni, politicians and society in general, the time has come to choose: do we want to cultivate institutions of higher learning, or of lower expectations and harder drinking?
Opportunities abound to make a difference.
What is missing is a concerted will to act. The death toll will be a testament to our timidity.
1 Binge drinking is a preventable cause of death.
To act, however, means comprehending the facts, understanding the issue, knowing the risks, acting responsibly and exercising common sense.
2 Know what defines binge drinking.
The generally accepted definition of binge drinking is the heavy consumption of alcohol over a short period of time, specifically five or more drinks (one after the other) by men, and four or more such drinks by women. Doing this once in a two-week period constitutes binge drinking. Heavy binge drinking includes three or more such episodes in a two-week period.
Although binge drinking is a dangerous and even deadly practice, people engage in it for a variety of reasons: they want to be part of a group, they want to feel older and more accepted, they respond to peer pressure to drink, or they think alcohol will make them feel better.
In her book Everything You Need to Know About the Dangers of Binge Drinking, Magdalena Alagna cites the following as common signs of binge drinking:
- Frequent hangovers from heavy drinking at parties.
- Drinking until you get sick or pass out.
- Doing or saying things you wouldn’t normally do or say.
- Feeling you must drink to have fun.
- Noticing a lot of your stories begin with “We were so drunk that night ...” or “I was so wasted ...”
- Avoiding spending time with friends who don’t drink.
- A night of drinking ends in being hospitalised with alcohol poisoning.
- You get arrested as a result of alcoholrelated behaviour.
- You frequently blackout as a result of drinking.
- You experience short-term memory loss as a result of drinking.
3 Understand the dangers of alcohol.
“Alcohol has been called the most active drug affecting the human body, impairing the intellect, physical abilities and metabolism,” says Sharon Scott, a professional counsellor. She also notes that “alcohol use by youth has devastating consequences” and cites the following figures from the United States, as examples: - Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are the only group in America with a declining life expectancy.
Driving under the influence is the leading cause of death for teens. Suicide is the second major cause of teenage deaths and today, such suicides are 10 times more likely to be alcohol- or other drug-related than they were 20 years ago.
Approximately 10,000 young people aged 16 to 24 are killed each year in other types of alcohol-related accidents, including drownings, violent injuries, homicides and inhalation of vomit.
4 Realise how alcohol impacts the body.
Heavy drinking is a major health risk. It reduces the ability of the body to function normally.
Ken Christiansen, a 19-year-old university student who had just made the rugby team, attended a team initiation party where students drank heavily.
Walking home after the party, Christiansen fell down a ravine. His body was found the next day. At the time of death, his blood-alcohol level was twice that of the legal limit to drive.
Although the medical coroner’s report determined that hypothermia was the cause of death, three university students were later charged with providing alcohol to a minor. The three had hosted the party and supplied kegs of beer for the event.
Also consider the fact that heavy alcohol consumption can permanently damage vital bodily organs.
5 Binge drinking can result in alcohol poisoning.
When a person drinks too much too rapidly, it affects the body’s involuntary reflexes, including breathing and the gag reflex. Many binge drinkers have choked to death because their gag reflex was unable to function. Other signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Extreme confusion
- Inability to be awakened
- Slow or irregular breathing
- Low body temperature
- Bluish or pale skin.
Know these signs of alcohol poisoning, because if you observe any of them in a friend, you must immediately call for emergency medical assistance.
6 Binge drinking impairs judgment.
A recent US survey revealed that alcohol was a main factor in four of 10 sexual assaults at schools surveyed. And, in one year, all sexual assaults at the one university campus were alcohol related.
Furthermore, alcohol is involved in 90 per cent of campus rapes, according to Columbia University’s Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Another study on campus rape, published in the Journal of American College Health, revealed 55 per cent of rape victims and 73 per cent of assailants had used alcohol or other drugs prior to the assault.
Students who frequently binge drink were 22 times more likely than nonbinge drinkers to:
- Be hurt or impaired
- Drive a car after drinking
- Get into trouble with campus or local police 55 percent of rape victims and 73 percent of assailants had used alcohol or other drugs prior to the assault.
- Engage in unplanned and unprotected sexual activity
- Damage property
- Fall behind in schoolwork
- Miss classes.
7 Blackouts are not uncommon.
One of the most frightening and dangerous consequences of binge drinking is a blackout, something experienced by thousands of students. A blackout is the warning signal that they are doing damage to their brains. During an alcohol-induced blackout, the drinker remains conscious but retains no memory of events. Often, it is a friend who tells the drinker how they behaved or what they said during the blackout.
Dr Aaron White, a biological psychologist at Duke University Medical Centre, surveyed students at one college to learn what kinds of activities they had been involved in during their blackouts. He discovered that students engaged in a variety of activities, including spending large amounts of money, engaging in sexual activity, getting into arguments, vandalising property and driving a vehicle—all without any memory of these events.
Here is a true blackout experience, related by a university student, on the occasion of his 21st birthday. In his dorm room, he began with four drinks before proceeding to a nearby bar: “At the bar, I had 15 or 16 drinks in a three-hour period. The last thing I remember—the drinks were really strong—I finished my drink and asked for another. I apparently continued to dance. Apparently, my friends tried to drive me home. Apparently, I got sick and was facedown in the snow, throwing up.
“My best friend half-carried, halfwalked me home. I went to visit a friend in my dorm; I climbed into bed with him. I don’t remember any of this.
There are pictures of me hovering over the toilet. I woke up the next morning with a bucket full of vomit next to my bed. I don’t remember any of this.
It’s funny—my friends laugh about it.
But really, I could have been very close to being dead there. It isn’t a funny situation.”
The final consideration to make about binge drinking is that it can bring a lifetime of pain. While in college, Casey Bloom drank heavily for several hours, then drove while intoxicated. He caused an accident that resulted in the death of a teenage girl. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
“In the blink of an eye, my student career was violently taken away from me,” he writes. “Fear, sadness and a painful sense of confusion is cast over me as I lie here in a cold, lonely place called prison. I am facing 21 years in prison for one mistake I made and regret—to drink and drive. I, like many of you, was a student with my whole life ahead of me. The choice I made to get behind the wheel of a car drunk took every bit of my life, along with a piece of my heart, away from me.”
Choosing not to drink may not be such a bad idea after all, for people who never drink never have alcohol-related consequences to regret.