A college student getting hammered on a Friday night isn't exactly breaking news—but a survey suggests that it's happening at Duke more than other schools.
The survey, conducted by the American College Health Association in Fall 2016, found that 72.2 percent of Duke undergraduates had consumed alcohol within the past month, almost 10 percent higher than the national average.
David Mallen, assistant director of the Duke Wellness Center, wrote in an email that these numbers can likely be attributed to the “work hard, play hard” attitude on campus, in which students feel they need to maximize their social time to balance out the time they devote to academics.
“Alcohol serves as the great equalizer that makes individuals feel more comfortable in unfamiliar situations,” Mallen wrote. “There is constantly a need to keep up with what everybody else is doing, so if the perception is that most students on campus are drinking to excess, then to not do so would make you the outlier."
'It seems like everyone drinks'
Junior Sam Lee agreed that a “work hard, play hard” mentality plays a large role in the drinking culture at Duke and even on study abroad programs.
"Because the curriculum at Duke is so rigorous and there is not much time to have fun and socialize, people feel obligated to binge drink when they do party with the thought of ‘I haven’t partied for a while, I need to have as much fun tonight as possible,'" she said.
If students with a higher profile on campus binge drink, their actions garner attention and are seen as the norm, Mallen explained.
He noted that DuWell is working to figure out why alcohol has become a fundamental component of events held both on and off campus.
“Students are presented with a narrative that it is expected and necessary to drink in order to fit in and have a good time,” Mallen wrote.
He suggested that attention and reinforcement should be directed toward students who drink in a responsible manner or do not drink at all.
Sophomore Heesu Park is one of those students who abstains from alcohol. She explained that she chooses not to drink because of alcohol's health consequences but understands why others do drink.
“It’s a fun way to just relax, have a good time with friends and get away from academics,” she wrote in an email. “It also seems like everyone drinks, so you don’t want to feel out of place."
Duke's efforts to reduce drinking
Despite the results from the AHCA survey, DuWell has actually noted a decrease in “high risk” behaviors since 2012, Mallen noted. Fewer students are now reporting binge drinking—defined as five or more drinks in a single sitting—three or more times in two weeks. More students are also reporting that they never binge drink.
There have also been fewer alcohol violations, fewer transports to the emergency room and a lower recidivism rate, Mallen added.
“These markers show that students are embracing and retaining the messages we are presenting before and throughout the school year and for even those students who have a misstep along the way, they are learning from the experience and working hard to be lower-risk in the future,” he wrote.
Programs like AlcoholEDU are one effort to inform students—particularly incoming first-years—about the effects of alcohol consumption.
But some are unsure if this is actually working. Although the program's intent is to help students make safe decisions about alcohol, Park said it is ultimately ineffective.
“These programs just give a bunch of numbers and statistics on why underage drinking is bad, but everyone already knows that drinking can have negative consequences,” Park wrote. “With this knowledge in mind, students still drink.”
Duke Emergency Medical Services is also working to decrease high-risk alcohol use among students.
Junior Scott Irons, an EMT with Duke Emergency Medical Services, said the documented decrease is likely because of a greater awareness about the risks of binge drinking and support from groups like DUEMS about preventative techniques.
“During LDOC or other events, DUEMS actively shares information about how to pace drinking, signs of alcohol poisoning and what to do if it is suspected,” he said.
Irons said that alcohol emergencies actually account for less than 10 percent the calls DUEMS receives. Most of these come from large functions, where students do not have the access to water or the oversight of peers.
The AHCA data also showed a difference in drinking habits among graduate and undergraduate students.
Graduate students reported consuming alcohol more frequently than undergraduates, with 24.4 percent of graduates but only 15.3 percent of undergraduates drinking on 10 or more days within a single month. Two percent of graduate students reported drinking alcohol every day, but none of the undergraduates reported this.
However, undergraduates reported higher rates of binge drinking than graduate students—which Mallen attributed to the differing expectations for a night out and the larger role of pre-gaming in undergraduate events.
Both undergraduate and graduate students reported using preventative strategies like alternating between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and setting a drink limit as well as tracking and pacing drinks throughout the night. Undergraduates had a lower rate of these preventative strategies and a higher rate of negative consequences from alcohol like loss of memory, injuries, legal problems and unprotected sex.
“Graduate students tend to be more open about acknowledging potential dependency issues because they have more experience about what has and has not worked during their college years and are now open to exploring alternative approaches," Mallen wrote.
Despite DuWell’s aim to reduce high-risk alcohol behaviors, students like Irons do not foresee a change in the campus drinking culture.
“For many, alcohol helps bolster social skills that might otherwise be lackluster,” he said. “Once the connection between socialization and alcohol is formed, it is tough to break.”
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