Photo credit: James Healy
Mieke O’Brien examines the increasingly fraught student relationship with alcohol.

 

Some students may argue that a cheap night out and the next day’s recovery is an experience integral to the college experience. It certainly appears inevitable to have attended UCD without having also gained knowledge of the specific alcoholic drink specials offered by certain venues in Dublin. Cheap alcohol promotions may seem innocent enough, but there are serious risks attached to the consumption of these discounted drinks.

According to Alcohol Action Ireland, the national charity for alcohol-related issues, “the average Irish person aged over 15 drank 11 litres of pure alcohol” in 2014, a slight increase from the previous 10.73 litres in 2013. An even more alarming observation presented by Alcohol Action Ireland is that 54 per cent of 18-75 year old drinkers could be classified as harmful drinkers. This constitutes an overwhelming number of people in Ireland (1.35 million) as harmful drinkers.

44 per cent of drinkers acknowledge that they partake in binge drinking on a regular basis. According to Alcohol Action Ireland, “Irish adults binge drink more than adults in any other European country.” They also report that the “highest proportion of binge drinkers is in the 18-29 age group.”

Donal Kiernan is a student focused alcohol awareness counsellor employed on a contractual basis by UCD. According to Kiernan, the “national relationship with alcohol…is reflected in the student population as a whole”.

Located in the Student Health Centre on the UCD campus, and available for counselling all day Thursday and Friday afternoon, Kiernan provides support to approximately 35 to 40 students who are “dealing with problems with alcohol”.

According to Kiernan, the link between problematic drinking and being in college is a strong one. He explains that an unhealthy relationship with alcohol is usually only established when the student starts college. In order to combat alcohol abuse, the social significance of alcohol has to be considered.

“Often it is peer pull rather than peer pressure which compels young people to engage in drinking,” Kiernan says. “Peer pull is when your friends, who themselves may be drinking are telling you not to drink, but you want to in order to feel included, part of the group – peer pressure is being pushed against your free will into engaging in this activity. You surrender your personal freedom and identity for the myth of belonging.”

Kiernan emphasises that this need not necessarily be an issue. “It is important to state that for many people drinking alcohol is not a problem, it is a social lubricant and this group do not feel the need to continuously drink. They can take it or leave it.”

While some students may not see the harm in discounted drinks at student events, for others the close relationship between alcohol and the college experience may be troublesome. Kiernan notes that alcohol can indeed serve as a mere “social lubricant”, but there is danger within this too. Drinking alcohol for the sake of being sociable may achieve the exact opposite. Kiernan emphasises that alcohol is a depressant drug, capable of severely affecting physical and mental health. Furthermore, consuming alcohol may also have a profoundly negative effect on a young person because, as Kiernan puts it: “The pathway to addiction is progressive and as tolerance rises one needs a greater quantity to get the same effect.”

Kiernan states that in order to support “those who cannot stop after one drink despite their best intentions… [the] reduced cost selling of alcohol needs to be totally outlawed as it is a dangerous commodity…”

It is not only the discount on the drink itself which promotes the consumption of alcohol. Certain students experience the “peer pull” to consume alcohol because it is this consumption that is praised and encouraged by fellow students.

For instance, one of UCD’s largest student societies, the Literary and Historical Society (L&H), has detailed on their membership card a total of fifteen discounts for different establishments. Five of these are nightclubs. Dramsoc, another large student society, offers discounts ranging from bookstores to nightclubs. These discounts demonstrate a response to that which is requested by their members, who demand that both academic and non-academic activities are subsidised. The cards therefore accommodate all components of the students’ college experience.

According to the events and entertainment manager of UCD Students’ Union, Paul Kilgallan, UCD Ents “is essentially the entertainment department of the Students’ Union”. Kilgallan is supportive of what he considers a shift that has already occurred on the UCD campus; a new “focus on mental and physical health” is “the trend amongst students at the moment, and we are reacting by providing… more and more, non-alcoholic entertainment.”

The success of the Mind, Body, and Soul festival organised by the Students’ Union demonstrates their wish to “cater to as many students as we can,” says Kilgallon. “We had at no time… less than two hundred people in the quad… an incredibly successful event, something we are very proud of, and it just shows that alcohol isn’t required to have an enjoyable time.”

The question of whether a student’s decision to abstain from alcohol is made more difficult by student specific marketing remains. According to Jonny Cosgrove from the venue Dicey’s, the discounted alcoholic drinks on offer on a Monday night do not directly encourage those attending the venue to drink. In fact, Cosgrove notes that despite the slight increase in prices of alcoholic beverages this past summer, they “have been busier than the previous September”.

While many societies promote alcohol in some way or use it at their events, Jonathon Byrne, the Station Manager for Belfield FM notes: “Lots of societies hand out wristbands with concessions to nightclubs. Other societies advertise ‘Free Grape Based alcohol products’ at their events. As societies we are not promoting the consumption of alcohol, as we are not ridding the student of their right to choose what they drink”. However, while societies see no harm in drinking, Donal Kiernan points out: “Individual societies within the college may well at times be sponsored by a particular brand or establishment, but as I said, there is no free drink; there is always a price.”