Kavanaugh Hearings Shine a Light on College Alcohol Abuse

The college drinking culture can have long-lasting effects.

Posted Oct 02, 2018

Clker-Free-Vector-Images, pixabay/CCO
"Falling"
Source: Clker-Free-Vector-Images, pixabay/CCO

The recent hearings on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court are notable for many reasons. But, as a psychology and health writer, it was Kavanaugh’s attempt to normalize his drinking and that of his friends in high school and college that caught my attention. “Everyone did it. Didn’t you?” seemed to be his message. For example, at various times Kavanaugh said: 

  •  “I drank beer with my friends. Almost everyone did. Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did. I liked beer. I still like beer.”
  • “We drank beer and, you know, so did, I think, the vast majority of people our age at the time. But in any event, we drank beer—and still do. So whatever, you know.”
  • "Sometimes I had too many beers. I liked beer. I still like beer. But I never drank beer to the point of blacking out, and I never sexually assaulted anyone."
  • “There is a bright line between drinking beer, which I gladly do, and which I fully embrace, and sexually assaulting someone, which is a violent crime.”

Unfortunately, Kavanaugh is right that excessive drinking is common among some groups and in certain places, such as college fraternities. But common as it is, excessive drinking is certainly not harmless or normal. With college drinking in the news, now would be a good time to review the statistics about the harms of college and underage drinking. 

College Drinking

The College Fact Sheet of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism lists numerous consequences of underage and college drinking for college students between the ages of 18 and 24. Some of the statistics are downright shocking. They include the following:

  • Alcohol-related deaths: Every year approximately 1,825 college students die from unintentional alcohol-related injuries such as motor vehicle accidents, falls, and alcohol poisoning. (Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person consumes so much alcohol so rapidly that the respiratory centers of the brain shut down.)
  • Assault: Every year about 696,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking. 
  • Sexual assault: Every year about 97,000 students report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
  • Academic problems
  • Other: Depression, suicide, involvement with the police, health problems, unsafe sex, driving under the influence.               

I was surprised to learn that “college students have higher binge-drinking rates and a higher incidence of driving under the influence of alcohol than their non-college peers.” The reason? "Certain aspects of college life, such as unstructured time, the widespread availability of alcohol, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws, and limited interactions with parents and other adults, can intensify the problem.”

Long-Term Damage

The harms of college drinking extend far into adulthood. Consider these after-effects, among others:

  • Emotional and physical suffering: Sexual assault survivors can experience a long, even life-long, period of physical and/or emotional suffering. Many survivors suffer from PTSD, including such after-effects of trauma as hypervigilance, anxiety, flashbacks, phobias, and insomnia.  Others may experience shame, humiliation, and embarrassment, blaming themselves for events that were beyond their control. Accident victims often endure a long period of physical recovery; many also experience post-traumatic distress.
  • Brain damage: Binge drinking and excessive alcohol use harm the developing brains of adolescents and young adults. Brain scientists now know that our brains do not fully develop until our mid-20s. Because the brains of young people are still developing, they are more vulnerable to toxins such as alcohol. Unbelievable as it may sound, a hangover is primarily a brain injury similar to a concussion, according to addiction specialist Dr. Howard Weissman in this blog post. As I say in my book Changepower, “It is a shame that some people shrug off youthful binging as normal experimenting when it can do permanent damage to young brains.”
  • Alcohol use problems: Almost half (45%) of 35-year-old males who had lived in a fraternity house for just one semester in college showed symptoms of alcohol use disorder, including binge drinking. Former sorority residents also had higher rates of alcohol use disorder at age 35 (26.4%). That is not to say that participation in Greek life caused alcohol problems; students who pledged may have self-selected. Nonetheless, their drinking habits were created or reinforced by their environment and continued to be a factor in adult life. For more, see this report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  
  • Other health issues: Alcohol has been implicated in the development of numerous health conditions, including breast cancer, oral cancers, heart disease, strokes and cirrhosis of the liver, according to this BBC report.

Resources

Most colleges and universities offer freshman orientation programs that attempt to educate students about alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual assault, and other campus issues. College counselors located right on campus are an excellent resource for students experiencing a variety of mental health issues or who need a referral to a specialist. 

For those who want to change the college drinking culture, this NIAAA-created website offers a plethora of ideas. Of particular interest is a research-based handbook offering 60 possible interventions aimed at reducing harmful campus drinking. 

The National Sexual Assault Hotline offers 24/7 confidential screening, brief counseling, and referral either at 1-800-656-4673 (That’s 1-800-656-HOPE.) or online.rainn.org. For more information, see the RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network) website.

Parents have more influence than they think. They can prepare their college-age students by talking about their own experiences, if applicable, and/or by providing guidelines that are in accordance with their religious or personal beliefs. According to the College Fact Sheet, "Research shows that students who choose not to drink often do so because their parents discussed alcohol use and its adverse consequences with them."

Sum

Whatever you may think about Kavanaugh, the hearings, and the current political situation, everyone should be concerned about the abnormal amount of drinking on college campuses. Alcohol-fueled campus life can have fatal consequences—now and in the future, for women, for men, and for drinkers themselves. We need to fully embrace not a culture of beer and drinking on campus, but a culture of caring and health.

(c) Meg Selig, 2018.  All rights reserved. For permissions, click here.

References

College Drinking Fact Sheet, NIH 

CollegeAIM--Alcohol Intervention Matrix.

"Memorable Quotes and Exchanges from Kavanaugh-Ford Hearing," St. Louis Post-Dispatch 

Bruni, F. “Brett Kavanaugh Loves His Beer,New York Times. 

Greek Life Membership Associated With Binge Drinking and Marijuana Use Later in Life,” 2.15.2018

Hazing incidents. The Economist, 10-13-2017. 

What Damage Does Alcohol Do To Our Bodies?” Roxby, P. BBC.

Selig, M. (2009) Changepower: 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success, NY: Routledge, p. 36.

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