As many high school graduates head off to college in August, they will be transitioning to a more independent life where they are responsible for themselves in ways that they haven’t been before. Freshman year can be especially challenging, as students often will experiment with their “newly acquired adulthood” and make decisions that aren’t always in their best interests. With the adjustment of living away from home, more unstructured time, as well as more academic and social pressures, many college students will gravitate toward using alcohol in ways that aren’t healthy.
The consequences of excessive drinking affects virtually all college campuses and college students, whether they chose to drink or not. Media coverage of recent alcohol-related deaths among college students has focused the spotlight on the tragic consequences that can result. As the problem has come into clearer focus by a multitude prevention-ori- ented task forces in colleges across the country, we have learned that excessive drinking can also lead to injury, assault, date rape, unprotected sex, academic problems and health consequences.
Research suggests that those at particular risk for alcohol problems in college include incoming freshmen, student- athletes and those involved in the Greek system. Personality factors, such as impulsivity and those with tendencies toward sensationseeking, may contribute to an elevated risk. While many students drink for social and environmental reasons, such as being at a party, others will drink for emotional reasons, such as coping with a bad grade, a relationship break-up, or to self-medicate an undiagnosed psychological disorder.
Many parents find it difficult to talk about alcohol concerns with their collegeaged student because they feel that they must preach and model abstinence. However, what is more realistic is that parents communicate the importance of drinking responsibly and being vigilant about personal safety.
Parents should be prepared to pay special attention to their son or daughter’s experiences and activities during the crucial first six weeks on campus. With a great deal of unstructured time, many students initiate heavy drinking during these early days of college. Attending Parents’ Weekend and other campus events open to parents will help to maintain this critical connection, as well as maintaining regular phone contact. If there are specific concerns, parents should initiate a conversation but expect that it will be an ongoing dialogue as opposed to a “one time” speech. Looking for “teachable moments” in current news stories can be a powerful way to launch these important discussions. If the teachable moment results from the consequences of your son or daughter’s intoxication, don’t try and have the conversation until they are sober and rational.
Ongoing patterns of excessive drinking are a red flag that further evaluation and treatment may be necessary. Students and families can check out http:// rethinkingdrinking. niaaa. nih.gov to answer questions about alcohol consumption and get a barometer of how serious the issue may be. University student counseling centers are an excellent place to seek consultation, and they will refer a student for more specialized help if indicated.
Dr. Caryn Richfield is a clinical psychologist practicing in Plymouth Meeting. She can be reached at 610-238-4450 or at email@example.com.