Data & Graphics Project

Data & Graphics Project

This was my capstone assignment for my digital journalism class this past semester. I researched the effect alcohol abuse has on college students and whether they should be considered alcoholics.

Alcohol Abuse on College Campuses Examined

By Emily Alvarenga

Dec. 7, 2016

Story Highlights

SAN DIEGO – Drinking has become a common occurrence that students often see as an integral part of their college experience.

Alcohol Piktochart
Click on the image to view the full infographic.

In a typical month, 59 percent of college students 18 to 22 drank alcohol, and two-thirds of those students binge drank (consumed four to five drinks within a two-hour period), according to a study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is run by the federal agency for substance abuse prevention and treatment. Whereas, when an older adult over the age of 40 drinks that much, they are considered an alcoholic, as stated by the American Psychology Association (APA).

In fact, the latest psychiatry diagnostic manual, the national guide that psychiatrists use to make clinical diagnoses, would categorize at least 40 percent of these students as alcoholics within their guidelines. These guidelines are meant to allow psychiatrists the opportunity to treat alcoholics earlier, stopping them before their alcoholism goes too far.

Instead of being called alcoholics, most students are told they have an alcohol use disorder. Results from the National Epidemiologic Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions (PDF) concluded that alcohol use disorders are common among college students, suggesting 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. This disorder, which is categorized by the APA as a pattern of having a problem controlling alcohol use, is just another euphemism for alcoholism.

Young adults are more likely to abuse alcohol

At SDSU, liquor law violations make up the majority of disciplinary referrals given to students, according to the SDSU Police Department’s crime statistics (PDF Page 43). Students receive disciplinary referrals when they violate the school’s laws prohibiting liquor, drugs or weapons. Punishments for these violations often result in students being put on probation with the school where they are unable to participate in any school organizations, including Greek Life.

Over the past two years at SDSU, liquor law violations have accounted for 69 percent of disciplinary referrals. According to the statistics, the amount of these disciplinary referrals has almost doubled from 364 to 633 referrals.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (PDF) says one out of every 12 Americans is an alcoholic, and young adults 18 to 29 are most likely to have a problem. And research suggests certain aspects of college life can exacerbate the problem.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the widespread convenience of alcohol and unreliable enforcement of underage drinking laws, along with the lack of parental supervision and amount of free time, can be attributed to students’ carefree attitudes towards alcohol abuse.

Although research suggests some college students could, indeed, be considered alcoholics, not all mental health professionals agree with this diagnosis.

Students fall into a unique bracket

Dr. Jim Lange, director of Health Promotion with SDSU’s Student Health Services and a psychiatrist who specializes in alcohol and other drug abuse, said few college students who drink heavily should necessarily be considered alcoholics.

There are some cases in which, he says, there are students who have the addictive pattern of substance abuse and can end up with that sort of diagnosis. But most college students are missing one key factor: time.

“One of the things that would be different from someone who’s younger versus someone who’s older is often the length of time they’ve experienced these symptoms,” Lange said.

Those who have been drinking for longer periods of time and can be considered true alcoholics are also experiencing the consequences of a continuing pattern of heavy drinking, according to Lange.

Lange added that college students are not exempt from what they call alcohol use disorders. According to Lange, the term alcoholic refers to a “compulsion to drink,” while an alcohol use disorder can occur without that, especially when students continue to drink after facing consequences repeatedly.

“If students don’t learn or don’t adapt their alcohol behavior so that they don’t experience those problems, that’s where it starts to become a disordered behavior,” Lange said.

Although a large number of students have experienced alcohol abuse problems, that doesn’t mean they’ve developed “the classic addiction.” Some students abuse alcohol while in college, but when they leave that environment they’re suddenly not drinking in the same way. According to Lange, most students fall into this category.

“For the most part, the younger you are – the less severe the consequences, and the less likely that addictive patterns have developed,” Lange said.

According to Dr. Lange, alcohol is by far the most prevalent issue on college campuses nationwide. Students, on the other hand, aren’t too sure how to broach the subject of alcohol abuse.

Students don’t accept the severity

Game of Beer Pong
College students playing a game of beer pong. Photo by Emily Alvarenga

While there are some students at SDSU who acknowledge the negative impact alcohol abuse has on their college experience, many disagree on the matter.

Senior Jared Fruth believes your opinion on alcohol changes throughout your college career.

“As you progress and get older, you become smarter and make better decisions that you probably wouldn’t have made as a freshman,” Fruth said.

He attributes students’ alcohol abuse to the college workload, explaining that after “five days of the most stressful classes they are ever going to take,” they look for a party in which they can unload.

Senior Paige Plassmeyer attributes most alcohol abuse to the freshman who just got out of high school.

They are excited to party and see what’s out there, which they consider an excuse to experiment, Plassmeyer said. And because they don’t know any better, they go through college with the mindset that they’re “just having fun.”

“My friends are constantly joking about being alcoholics on social media,” Plassmeyer said. “Alcohol abuse is just so widely accepted, it’s kind of hard to think it’s a big deal.”

Junior Nicholas Amador was a freshman who just “wanted to get hammered,” up until he was caught drinking with some friends in his dorm room and was put on probation with the school.

“My meeting with the school’s alcohol counselor actually put things in perspective for me,” Amador said. “It hit me that if I was drinking this much ten years from now, I’d for sure think I was an alcoholic, but because I’m in college and everyone’s doing it, I think it’s totally normal.”

Amador attributed his drinking habits to Greek Life, saying “you’re expected to drink… A lot.” After being put on probation, he said he quickly realized that getting drunk wasn’t worth it.

Panhellenic President Robin Winzelberg does her best to keep stereotypes of Greek Life, like that of Amador’s, from affecting the Greek community at SDSU.

Greek Life makes up only about 15 percent of the university, according to Winzelberg, making it the largest organization on campus while still allowing it to feel like a somewhat tight-knit group.

“You are a representative of your chapter and of your community,” she said. “Being 15 percent of the university is a huge responsibility, and it gives people the opportunity take responsibility for their actions.”

Those who are affected by alcohol abuse in a negative way become an example of what not to do, allowing the rest of the community a chance to grow and learn from their mistakes. Winzelberg said college is the time in which students are supposed to make mistakes and learn from them, calling college a “trial and error” period.

“These college experiences teach you how you want to represent yourself and what kind of person you want to be,” Winzelberg said.