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Drunk and Educated: Hell in a hand basket (Part Four)

10 April 2012 No Comment

Hell in a hand basket

You were out all last night at pub and here comes Thursday rolling in like it does every seven days. You’re missing Thursday classes every other week and find yourself constantly asking classmates for what you’ve missed. Your grades are starting to drop and stress begins to build, so on the weekend you start drinking even more to the point of not remembering the night before. All of a sudden you’re in class on a Monday and people are handing something in. The teacher asks where yours is, but you have no idea what they’re talking about. Turns out the project is worth 40 per cent of your final grade and your heart drops. Panic sets in and your brain, which is freaking out, is screaming, “You’re going to fail this program.”

At this point you should have realized that your wild nights have become a real issue in your life. There are usually two responses to this sudden realization – accept you have a problem and seek help or find solitude in denial. Unfortunately, coping with the situation happens to be the most common response to most forms of substance abuse – alcohol not withstanding. But for those looking for a little guidance, seek and ye shall find.

Tucked away in a brand new office, a counsellor of 30 years sits in his slightly cramped and dimly lit room waiting to steer students back to normalcy. In Peter Young’s office at Mohawk College, no subject is too sacred or personal for his experienced ears. Did you drink yourself silly and wake up in a bed filled with multiple, partially naked people wearing grocery bags on their heads? Well, that’s nothing new. All that matters is teaching a student how to cope with the aftermath of their decisions, even if it’s for a single session.

“I’ve had students come in and often times they will come twice and think they’re okay and away they go or they decide to fire me without telling me,” jokes Young. “We try to focus on short-term solution focused counselling where they may be here for three to six sessions, and I would say that’s sort of average. There are some people that I think have this idea of counselling that something magical will happen and that the counsellor will have this insight on what the root problem is that makes them do things in certain ways and within one or two sessions it will go away.”

But, as we all know, magic only exists at Hogwart’s.

“It takes work on both sides – the interpretation of the counsellor and then looking at these things and going out and working on them almost on a daily basis in terms of changing behaviours, attitudes and thoughts. Do they stick with me? I think until they feel they’re somewhat satisfied when they leave. Whether or not they’ve got it all figured out varies.

“The fact is on two levels. One they might be right. My grades will probably suffer a little and I will probably do a few stupid things in my life that might affect my liver, which will impact me when I’m 83, but overall I will get through this process and I’m not necessarily going to be a problem drinker in life. There is this other group that may end up doing and saying, ‘Well, it’s still something I have to do, partying is part of life and if I flunk out I will start a new program in January.’ So they rationalize or they say it’s not that big of an issue.”

Young says breaking free of the boundaries set by their parents often play a significant role in college life, which is further fueled by alcohol. Whether it’s skipping class, getting blitzed on Wednesdays or silently firing your counsellor, students suddenly have the freedom to make their own bad decisions. Set a caged 19-year-old loose into a life of responsibility and you will witness one hell of a transformation. The innocent child you once knew has suddenly changed their Facebook picture to an artistically framed middle finger amidst a backdrop of beer cans.

Can you blame them? They just spent their entire life living under their parent’s rule in a home where they were fed and given money for mowing the lawn. Almost over night, freedom falls into their lap in the form of free money (OSAP), transportation (The family’s 17-year-old car), and a room that doesn’t require a window for sneaking friends in. Welcome to Responsibility 101.

“Well it seems like a rite of passage for kids for decades, if not generations, where young people may have tasted freedom in a full sense for the first time and alcohol always seems to be a part of the post-secondary experience,” says Young. “Kids are away from parental controls and experimenting with a number of things – expressing themselves more openly through taking some risks, through sexual behaviour. I think over the years [alcohol] has always been there for some time.”

Drinking sounds like an inevitability. Surely with all the alcohol education programs that exist in schools some of the dangers that surround alcohol consumption must be sinking in, or at least that’s what I thought until Dr. David Brown set me straight.

“Given the risks associated with heavy drinking and the opportunities for young people to engage in it, I’d say that as a community we are not preparing youth sufficiently,” says Brown. “Educating by just giving information on risks does not have a strong track record for helping people manage their behaviours, whether they are young or older.”

Brown is a Health Research and Policy Analysis Consultant who focuses on substance use problems. For over 10 years, he has advised Canadian health leaders on issues surrounding substance abuse and has engaged in studies with other researchers across North America.

Brown says despite attending a conference recently where they discussed and analyzed anti-substance abuse tactics, a clear and easy way of handling the situation has yet to be discovered. He says in order to help curb some of the abuse, a three-level approach would be needed for any level of success. In an ideal situation, you would first need to reach an individual on a personal level, then the establishments that serve the alcohol. Afterwards policies would need to be put in place to help keep the two in check. Until then, Brown says the onus still falls on the post-secondary institution to help look after and regulate what’s happening on campus.

“One of the things that campuses can do with respect to drinking limits is to find ways to curtail ‘drink specials’ in bars on and near the campus. This usually takes cooperation from the community and municipality. Drink specials lead to dangerous levels of consumption.”

As seen in our investigation, this could certainly be true, but I still wanted to know why campuses even serve alcohol. Wouldn’t going “dry” be an effective strategy for campuses?

“It would be hard to put into practice, I suspect, except as a policy,” says Brown. “Students can always find places to drink on or off campuses. Again, it comes down to increasing the capacity of students to make healthy choices and to provide as safe an environment as possible, and also establishing ways to help students who are at risk or harmed. These steps all require well thought out policies. But this means talking about it as a campus, rather than pretending the issue isn’t there. Administrations tend not to like talking about it too much.”

So in other words, it’s a waste of time. Is binge drinking something that’s so engrained in our culture that we’re literally forced to accept it? I really don’t want to believe that. Surely there’s some form of damage control out there. For now, Young says it’s up to the individual to strike a balance.

“It’s an old, tired expression, but everything in moderation,” advises Young. “Whether it’s alcohol or late-night studying sessions or eating French fries three days in a row…I get kids to sort of do a self-analysis and ask what’s out of line, what’s getting in the way of being where you want to be. Step back and reassess why you’re here, what can you let go of, when can’t you party. Time management is a key to success.”


Much of what I’ve learned while researching this topic didn’t come as a shock to me. Heavy drinking seems to be a necessary evil for some people, especially students. It’s almost this taboo subject that nobody really cares to think or talk about. It exists and it’s better to let things run their course. But something Dr. Brown said to me during our interview was rather sobering. When writing this article, I was so focused on alcohol and education that I didn’t think of the bigger picture.

“Understanding why people drink too much at a time may be less important than understanding the consequences,” says Brown. “Drinking beyond low risk levels has a larger burden on the health system and society than all illicit drugs combined. A large portion of this is from people who get drunk and put themselves and others at risk for injuries. For example, intoxication can actually make depression worse in the long run, thereby increasing the risk of suicide, and won’t make the underlying stresses of someone’s life go away. Extreme levels of consumption can result in often fatal alcohol poisoning, which happens tragically more often than you might imagine on or near campuses when students play drinking games.”

And it’s not just your health you need to worry about. Think of all the relationships that are ruined, families torn apart and bank accounts that are running on empty. The list of effects touch almost every aspect of one’s life, which can then ripple into any number of other lives. Brown suggests to “spend a Friday or Saturday night in an emergency department to get the full sense of these risks and harms.” Sounds like tough love. Maybe that’s what’s needed to educate people. Although slightly cruel, I always thought fear was the best motivator. I admitted to possibly being scared to drink earlier, so maybe there’s some truth to it. However, being on the front lines, Young doesn’t think things are as bad as they once were.

“I think, generally speaking, there is not the sort of preoccupation that there was ten, certainly 20 years ago,” Young says. “You get the whole zero-tolerance stuff on the highways, but back when I was in university when you were drunk the cops would say drive slow. I’m exaggerating a little bit but not much. I’m talking about the 70’s when I was in university. There has been a real cultural shift in terms of attitudes. I see kids getting that. I see people taking taxis and stuff. I think the overall consumption has decreased and kids are getting the message.”

As for the university alumnus, Kennedy doesn’t blame anyone but himself for the twist his life took as a student.

“I have a lot of friends and family that would talk to me about it, and I knew that I was going down the wrong road, but that road you’re going down, you’re the only one that could ultimately change yourself. No one else can change for you. A person needs to know that they are ready to change and it may be a health scare of some kind that could make them change, but if I went back in time right now – that might have helped, but at the time nothing anyone said to me really hit home.”
If he could give advice to someone going down the same path, “maybe they would understand the same things, but talking to that person would be, I don’t want to say pointless because it sounds bad, but it’s the truth,” admits Kennedy. “Denial is a very powerful thing and if you’re not ready to change, you’re not going to change.”

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