College drinking: Tradition and sometimes tragedy
By Jim Morelli
April 27, 2023
For some, it is as intrinsic to the college experience as living in a dorm, drinking alcohol. In some cases, lots of alcohol — even so much as to require medical attention.
That kind of drinking went on at UMass-Amherst this past March when an all-day alcohol ingestion event called the Blarney Blowout ended with more than two dozen students needing medical attention. The emergency department at Cooley-Dickinson Hospital in Northampton was reportedly overwhelmed that day with potential alcohol-poisoning cases.
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All of the UMass students survived the Blarney Blowout. But, sadly, that has not always been the case on college campuses. In 2013, Anthony Barksdale, an 18-year-old freshman at Boston University, died after heavy drinking during a fraternity event.
“There’s just simply this belief that it happens to somebody else,” said Hank Nuwer, who authored several books on college binge drinking — especially as it relates to hazing.
Nuwer said that while alcohol has a long history on college campuses, drinking seemed to accelerate when the legal age went from 18 to 21 in the United States.
“Right around that time, you can start seeing the hazing increase, the alcohol-related deaths increase,” Nuwer said. “And maybe the simple reason for it is when you prohibit something it either becomes more attractive or it becomes necessary to break that rule, especially when you’re in a group or a fraternity.”
But there have been serious consequences to breaking that rule. The government reports about 22,000 college-age Americans wind up hospitalized each year because of alcohol use — as many as 1,500 die.
Nuwer maintains an online list of fatal hazing incidents in the U.S., going all the way back to 1838. Most of the more recent ones involve heavy ingestion of alcohol.
“(With pledging) the litmus test of manhood is to be able to drink a handle of alcohol — you’re talking about 40 ounces — plus shots of alcohol,” Nuwer said. “So you could have anywhere from 40 to 50 ounces or more that you’re consuming in 20 minutes, maybe an hour.”
Nuwer said that amount of alcohol would prove fatal to some students.
“The problem is that many do survive, and then the expectation is that the next group will survive,” said Nuwer. “This kind of invincible spirit is pervasive on all campuses.”
But invincibility is not guaranteed when it comes to alcohol and, in any case, isn’t apportioned equally — sometimes for the simple reason that young college students may lack drinking experience. Such was the case with Barksdale, according to his family at the time.
“If you’re not used to drinking alcohol, you are very susceptible to alcohol poisoning,” said Antje Barreveld, MD, co-founder of Newton-Wellesley Hospital’s Substance Use Service. “So it doesn’t take as much as it does for someone who already has an inherent tolerance.”
But that’s not an invitation to party it up pre-college in order to prevent alcohol poisoning.
“One of the most shocking things to a lot of youth is understanding that the teenage brain actually doesn’t stop developing until the late twenties,” said Barreveld. “And so the young brain is extremely vulnerable to certain stressors, including alcohol.”
So even moderate drinking in the teen and young adult years can impact health.
Barreveld said it’s also true that the earlier you start drinking, the more likely you are to develop a substance use disorder.
“Some of these risk factors are modifiable, but you may have a brain that’s more susceptible to addiction, said Barreveld. “So there’s a lot we can do for prevention and recognizing whether you might be vulnerable. to substance use disorders.”
Recognizing risk factors is key.
“One of those is family history,” Barreveld said. “So if someone has a parent, a brother, a sister or other close family member with a substance use disorder, then they can have almost double the risk of someone who does not.”
College is, of course, a time of testing and experimentation and pushing the limits. It’s also a time when parents have to be vigilant, Nuwer said — especially if a son or daughter is pledging to a fraternity or sorority — because chances are the initiation will involve alcohol.
And don’t count on the college administrators to stop it.
“You take action, show up at the fraternity house,” he said. “You’re not getting called. Your son’s a pledge and you’re not getting calls. Your son’s a rookie and you suspect something. Check it out and go first-hand yourself.”
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“There’s no such thing as a perfect kid — they just don’t exist,” said Benita Page, program director at the Tariq Khamisa Foundation in San Diego. “We put a lot of unnecessary pressure and stress on our kids and they, in turn, put it on themselves.”
Page was a featured speaker at What I Wish My Parents Knew, a virtual forum for students and parents from Canyon Hills High and other schools. Watch a recording of the forum on YouTube.
One student shared, “It’s hard to talk to them sometimes. They’re busy with work, and I don’t want to intrude.”
The latest What I Wish My Parents Knew focused on communication skills, with emphasis on issues that are hard to discuss. Club Elevated conducted a survey to get input from other Canyon Hills students.
They asked more than 100 classmates, “What’s the hardest topic to talk to your parents about?”
Good news: The most popular answer was that most students feel comfortable talking with their parents about everything. One out of three students felt that way.
Eleventh-grader Kyle Estep believes it is a matter of trust.
“When I talk to my parents, I know it’s confidential,” Estep explained. “I couldn’t say the same if I talked with other students. That information could be easily spread.”
More than a quarter of the students asked said their own mental health is the most challenging thing to discuss. Senior Nick Alcorn reviewed the survey responses on that issue.
“Students feel they can’t fulfill their parents’ expectations when they say they’re sad,” said Alcorn. “Their parents expect them to be happy and successful, and they don’t want to let their parents down in that way.
“Some students felt like talking about mental health was seen as an excuse to get out of their responsibilities,” Alcorn added. “Their parents had dismissed their feelings in the past. Conversations about mental health don’t happen when teenagers don’t think they’re going to be heard.”
Only 3% of the students said it was hard to talk to their parents about drugs and alcohol.
However, it was a significant issue for those few. One wrote, “They misunderstand everything. They get upset that I asked, and they’ll think I do drugs.”
At the same time, having conversations about substance use is critical to making healthy decisions.
“Parents are the number one influence in their child’s life related to their attitudes and behaviors around alcohol,” said Club Elevated’s Via Perlas.
Eleventh-grader Estep added, “Talking with teens about alcohol and drugs might be uncomfortable for parents, but research shows their kids listen, and these conversations have a lasting impact.”
Another small segment of students (5%) said post-high-school expectations are challenging.
Marissa Sheehy graduates this year. She said some relatives seem focused on her college plans, and her parents set clear academic expectations.
“We have rules about missing school assignments, and losing privileges if you have a lot of those,” she said. “It is not about pressure to succeed academically, it’s more about putting in the effort.”
She said she knows other adults who place tremendous value on getting good grades.
“When a student feels like they’re stepping out of line as to what this ‘perfect’ or ‘normal’ child looks like, they become afraid, and it becomes difficult to talk to your parent about that,” she explained.
The workshop concluded with a panel discussion, featuring Page of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, Lincoln High School Student Naveah Capell, and Yasmeen Elbanna, a North Central Teen Recovery Center counselor.
Capell explained how parents could misunderstand a child who’s trying to have a conversation.
“When I’m trying to express how I feel they don’t feel like I’m doing it the right way,” Capell said. “Because you’re talking back, they put that in the category of you being disrespectful.
“Parents read a lot of stuff online and assume it’s right,” Capell added. “It’s easier to ask other adults, and they don’t want to have that awkward conversation. I get it. But when they assume stuff, it doesn’t make good communication between the parent and teenager.”
“In my line of work, we say that our clients are the expert on their lives,” Elbanna said. “Parents bring wisdom and have guidance to offer, but the kids are the experts on their feelings and what they’re going through. Instead of looking for a solution, kids often just need their parents to listen and try to understand what’s going on.”
If a child is struggling with talking about something parents should understand that it’s probably a problem, Page said.
“We need to create safe spaces for our children to find their voices,” she explained. “We won’t know how to support them until we let them use their voice and we get out of the way.”