Student drinking: an old problem devoid of new solutions

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At the risk of sounding like killjoy, Heather Reynolds asks if it might be a good idea to slow down every once in a while.

Genuine question - how is the hangover treating you?

To get this out of the way - I’m not a narc, I swear. However, it has been plain to see that since at least the early 2000’s, binge drinking and dangerous drinking have been major problems within college communities. 

The reasons why this style of drinking is so commonplace among students is obvious - students typically have the most spare time out of any adult communities, they can legally buy their own alcohol and spend as much of their money on it as they choose, and, for likely the first time, their social life is entirely devoid of responsible adult oversight. That is not to say that college students are incapable of treating their drinking responsibly, but when you’re learning how to drink with other beginner drinkers, it's hardly surprising when no one heeds the “Do not mix with alcohol” warning on the Red Bull can before their mate overindulges on Jaeger Bombs and has a seizure.

There’s an issue, often, when we talk about problem drinking, particularly among young people, where we underplay problem drinking in our own lives. To react as if anyone raising the question of unhealthy drinking is a spoilsport, or a dry shite - or to say, yes, sure, there are young people with drinking problems, but your average college student going out on the lash isn’t one of them. These are fine perspectives to hold, but when conversation stops there, you do begin to wonder how problem drinking can be addressed at all.

With colleges and universities fully reopened around Ireland, and student life subsequently returning in full swing, the question of how best to address concerns around youth drinking habits is sure to return with it. In fact, they already have, with some students raising concerns about how many of the large scale events on campus have involved alcohol already - such as mixer cans being handed out at the L&H Freshers week debate, or UCDSU’s Oktoberfest events. 

However, these aren’t really the type of events that should be causing concern. While I’d be among the first to admit that students aren't typically the most informed about what would be considered healthy alcohol consumption, I’ve also helped to run events in the Student Centre that involve alcohol, and so I do know from a firsthand perspective what the expectations are for those events. Namely, students are not supposed to be serving their own alcohol, and anyone who is handling the alcohol at the event is not supposed to be drinking. While questions can certainly be asked about the frequency of these events, it does feel to be a misguided focus of attention with regards problem drinking.

The biggest risk focal points, from the perspective of someone who has been involved in student life in one way or another, are in club nights and gaff parties. Situations where there is little to no control over alcohol consumption except for oneself, and social settings where one may feel pressured to keep going for “just one more”, or to drink outside of their own comfortable pace to keep up with others. Where people may be planning to have just the one to loosen themselves up, and then by the end of the night find, unbeknownst to themselves, they’ve finished half a shoulder of rum.

It does also feel true that this issue is lessening over time - I can count the times I’ve felt pressured to keep drinking past my comfort level on one hand, and the majority of people I speak to would be in the same boat. However, the statistics on youth and college age drinking aren’t really backing that feeling up. Looking back over statistics printed in studies and articles over the past two decades, binge drinking has stayed steady in affecting about two in three college aged young adults, regardless of the year in which these youths were surveyed. 

On top of that, it remains incredibly unclear as to whether knowledge of what unhealthy, or problem drinking is, has risen among UCD students since 2017, when the College Tribune ran a story on a survey which found 60% of UCD students were unable to define what binge drinking even was. (Binge drinking is currently categorised as 5 or more drinks in a single session for men, and 4 or more for women.) 

The winter is once again settling in, and with it the onslaught of midterms, then finals, then perhaps home for a stressful holiday season, or perhaps a lonely one for those who can’t make it home.  This is the case even without Ireland’s currently looming Cost of Living and energy crises. It is also one of Ireland's longest drinking seasons, with many huddling in pubs and clubs for warmth on the cooler evenings. Couple this with the many people who are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder, and we’re heading into a time where both drinking and mental health crises are likely to be on the rise.

Alcohol, as fun as getting a buzz can be, is chemically a depressant, and a chemically addictive one at that. It’s worth keeping that in mind - not to the point of stopping altogether if you don’t feel a want to, but if a night out starts feeling less fun after you’ve gotten a drink in your hand, it might be no harm to try a few minerals on instead.

With UCD once again having more than one student bar, inching ever closer to the fabled three bar campus of yore, it is perhaps worth asking ourselves what our own drinking looks like; if we feel like it aids or hinders us on a night out, how we feel the morning after, do we like the person we are while we’re drinking, are we drinking because we want to, or because we feel we have to. Maybe give a sobriety month, like Dry January or Sober October a try. A little introspection never hurt anybody, but denial has had an impact on a fair few.