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Can We Stop Binge Drinking on College Campuses?

A secret weapon in the fight against college binge drinking

Maria* is an attractive young woman who started binge drinking her first night at college. "I needed a few shots to relax," she told me, "and a few more to have fun." By the time she reached my office, she was binge drinking regularly. "I'm still studying and doing fine in school," she said. "The drinking isn't really a problem."

But it was. Maria had come to therapy not because of the drinking, but because of a bad sexual episode that she couldn't stop because she was too drunk to do anything. She also had a tendency, she admitted, to binge on food when she was drunk. But she didn't want to stop binge drinking. "It's fun. And it's the way all my friends have fun."

In case we didn't know that there was a problem with binge drinking in college, a recent study published in Health Economics has shown that binge drinking increases during economic downturns - and that some of the biggest sufferers are in the 18-24 age group. College administrators across the U.S. are hard at work looking for a solution to the problem of binge drinking on campus, and for this they are to be applauded (although some specialists in the field, such as Stanton Peele, who blogs on PT about this topic, do not fully agree with the solutions they are implementing.) Former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal has just announced that he is joining this fight. But for anything to work, college administrators are going to have to take into account two factors:

First, binge drinking is not just social. It is a way that students manage their feelings, including anxiety, depression, worry and sexuality.

And second, there is a simple, cost-effective tool that is easily available to them, although not as easily accepted. They could get help from their students' parents.

Binge drinking - the consumption of five or more drinks in a short period of time (two hours, for example) for men, and four or more drinks for women - like other binge behavior, is in part related to difficulties calming and regulating oneself. It is normal for college students, flooded with hormones, learning to manage life on their own, to have some difficulty with self-soothing. (Susan Albers writes about this in her PT blog and her books.)

But in my experience, many of these young men and women suffer from a difficulty called "alexithymia." That is, they have troubles using words to help themselves feel better. They can talk easily and clearly about their feelings - but putting their feelings into words doesn't help them manage those emotions. (I've talked about this phenomenon in some of my other posts, particularly on eating disorders.)

Several surveys released last winter, including the annual UCLA survey of college freshman, showed that these youngsters are more overwhelmed than ever before. I imagine that this year will be even worse. Alcohol obviously both decreases inhibitions and increases, at least temporarily, a sense of calm and freedom from worry. Interestingly, almost any kind of binge can release some of the same calming chemicals into the brain, even when there is no toxic substance involved. Binge drinking and other binge behaviors help soothe and calm troubling feelings. Harder to handle emotions require more soothing behaviors - so if something doesn't happen to help kids deal with these feelings more fully, their use of alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, unsafe sexual practices, and so on - could very possibly increase.

One way to curtail the binge culture on campus would be to provide youngsters with alternative ways to soothe themselves and manage the real worries in their lives. And despite all the bad press parents tend to get, and worries about hovering helicopter parents who intrude on healthy adolescent development, in many situations parents are the best sources of the kind of calming their kids need.

Daniel Siegel, who has integrated neuroscience and psychoanalysis, says that children use "the mature functions" of their parents' brains to help them soothe and organize themselves. Overtime, of course, the goal is for these functions to be gradually learned and taken over, so that a youngster is able to do for him or herself what her or his "attachment figures," as parents are called in this theory, have previously done for them. My experience with college students has often been that, much as they long to be independent from their parents, they actually still need someone else to provide those functions during their freshman and sophomore years, and sometimes even afterwards.

This is not to say that parents should have the same input that they have when their children are younger; but the current attitude that parental involvement ends when a teen walks through the campus gates is, I would suggest, highly problematic. College administrators would do far more towards resolving not only binge drinking, but all binge behavior on campus, if they could develop a policy for helping their students and their families find a new language for engagement - one that acknowledges some of the changes that are and must occur as teens move towards adulthood, but that also recognizes that parents can and should still be part of their adolescents' life, offering advice and guidance when and as needed. A gradual shift from childhood dependence to adult independence includes acceptance of appropriate assistance appropriately offered. And the ability to accept assistance is crucial to both self-soothing in the present and psychological health and well-being in the future.

Sanctioning some sort of parental involvement will not, of course, solve all problems. There will be inevitable storms, even with parents who are not intrusive or youngsters who do not insist on total independence.

But offering a setting in which there is room for mutual respect and ongoing contact will set the stage for future relationships, not only between parent and adult child, but between an adolescent and his or her friends and love partners. Because, as John Bowlby, the British psychologist who first noted the importance of attachment to psychological well-being has put it, we all need not just a sense of independence and competence, but to know that there is someone else who can help us manage our feelings, like we need oxygen to breathe, from birth to death.

*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

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