Alcohol on campus: choosing to drink should mean choosing to think
Part three of a five-part series exploring drinking on campus.
Bob Vinci has had a busy fall. As director of Boston Medical Center’s pediatrics emergency department, his many patients have included 42 underage drinkers—the majority of them BU students—since the semester began. Some stumble in with friends, others are rushed in by ambulance. They suffer from headaches, vomiting, and disorientation—some so disoriented they appear comatose.
Two weeks ago, Vinci treated a BU freshman. It was her first time in his ER, but the third time she’d needed medical attention for binge drinking since school began. Vinci, who is also a School of Medicine professor of pediatrics and a department vice chairman, made sure the student talked to a social worker before she left the building. “The challenge,” he says, “is they have to do the hard part, which is the follow-through.”
This is the busiest time of year for alcohol-related medical transports, as well as for alcohol-related campus arrests and referrals to the Judicial Affairs Office. Last year, in September and October alone, 97 students were brought to the ER, and the yearlong figures point to an upward trend. The number of BU students transported to local emergency rooms for alcohol-related incidents rose from 149 in 2007 to 212 in 2009, and this year’s numbers are also high—148 as of October 10—according to the BU Police Department. BUPD Captain Robert Molloy says the jump reflects greater vigilance and a more proactive approach to alcohol monitoring by residential life staff and security guards.
Julian Chubb (SHA’11) can attest to that. Chubb tells of a friend who ended up in the ER after a security guard at Warren Towers noticed that he was having a lot of trouble swiping his ID card. “He still drinks,” says Chubb, “but he hasn’t done anything like that since that night.”
Even as medical transports have increased, the number of arrests and referrals to the Judicial Affairs Office has declined—dropping from 95 arrests and 515 referrals in 2006 to 12 and 468 in 2009. The drop, in Molloy’s opinion, is part of the payoff of a University-wide push to discuss drinking with students and provide more on-campus activities on nights and weekends.
“Our concern is the safety and well-being of the students,” he says. “The last thing we want to do is summons or bring people to court. We always try to think of new and innovative ways to reach out to students to slow down the abuse of alcohol.”
Most of the time, says Vinci, students brought to the ER are given time to sleep it off and metabolize the alcohol. When they wake up, he says, they get a more complete medical evaluation and often a social worker speaks to them about risky drinking.
Vinci says serious alcohol poisoning is rare among transported students, but there is a definite risk of injury from falls. And as well, impaired decision-making from alcohol carries a greater risk of some longer-lasting consequences. Phoenix House, a nonprofit foundation that studies substance abuse and dependency, reports that 60 percent of college women infected with sexually transmitted diseases were under the influence of alcohol when they contracted the disease. And according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 90 percent of all campus sexual assaults involve the use of alcohol.
“Someone is more likely to be pushy when they have liquid courage,” says Michelle Markle (SAR’12). Markle advises her friends to “always have a buddy” when going out and to agree on signals to flash when stuck in an uncomfortable situation.
Sacha Glasser (CFA’12) follows a similar rule. “I stay with people I’m comfortable with,” she says. “People who will look after me if I do something stupid.”
At BU Student Health Services, counselors find that students who come in to talk about sexual assault, depression, or other problems also often have issues with alcohol. Instead of preaching abstinence, the counselors take a “harm reduction” approach.
“We don’t think it’s effective or helpful to tell someone what to do,” says Elizabeth Douglas, the University’s alcohol and drug program coordinator. “These students are adults, and they need to come to the decision on their own.” Douglas prefers to talk with students about their drinking, and if they choose to continue to drink, about safer ways to do it. She and Margaret Ross, director of SHS’s Behavioral Medicine, worry most about freshmen, especially women (who are at greater risk of sexual assault), and about those students who party hard on a regular basis.
Students who seek help at Behavioral Medicine, whether on their own or required by Judicial Affairs, are given an array of options. Many find the help they need in online interventions or group support, while others do better with an off-campus clinical evaluation and the encouragement of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, which hosts dozens of meetings in Allston, Brighton, and Brookline.
For the most part, students who spoke to BU Today have seen friends make mistakes, then learn not to make them. Like Julian Chubb, Markle has a friend who was transported from Warren Towers to a local ER. It happened on a big party day, says Markle: Boston Marathon Monday, and alcohol was a big part of the party. Markle says her friend is now wiser, and much more careful about what she drinks.
“As you grow,” she says, “you definitely learn how much you can drink and what’s accepted and what’s too far.”
Next up: “Drinking: 18 vs. 21.”
Getting Help: Information about alcohol abuse treatment and support at Student Health Services can be found here. Learn more about alcohol and your health here. Resources and information about reporting sexual assault can be found here.
AlcoholScreening.org, a tool for confidentially assessing drinking and finding help, was developed by researchers at the BU School of Public Health.8 Comments