By DENISE ERDAHL PLOOF
Excessive drinking by young people, particularly college students, has been making headlines in recent years. And while the majority of Puget Sound students either drink responsibly or abstain from drinking altogether, the university believes any incident of alcohol abuse is cause for concern. It is, therefore, taking a leadership role on several fronts to address this problem.
Working on many levels
Puget Sound President Susan Resneck Pierce has been participating for the past 18 months in a project sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one of the arms of the National Institutes of Health. Based on what she has learned, she is spearheading a community-based task force devoted to preventing alcohol abuse. This task force, headed by Puget Sound Professor and former Tacoma City Council Member Bill Baarsma, comprises community leaders and secondary school and college level educators. The group will develop strategies to reduce excessive and underage drinking and publicize information on how to identify and safely respond to extreme intoxication or acute alcohol poisoning.
Numbers don’t lie
Charee Boulter, substance abuse prevention program coordinator in Puget Sound’s Counseling, Health and Wellness Services (CHWS), is implementing an innovative alcohol education program called "Know Your Numbers." The basis of the campaign, which has enjoyed success on other campuses, is to collect survey data on patterns of student alcohol and other drug use and publicize this objective information. Boulter intends to show the Puget Sound community that among Puget Sound students who drink, most drink in moderation and make responsible choices, such as not driving after drinking.
The CORE Alcohol and Drug Survey that was administered on campus in 1998 shows that the majority of Puget Sound students (65 percent) drink moderately (four or fewer drinks per occasion) or not at all. Fifty-one percent have one-to-four drinks per occasion and 14 percent abstain. This is lower than the national average. The nationwide findings from the 1995-1996 CORE survey indicate that 58 percent of students nationwide drink in moderation (four drinks or fewer).
Reinforcing healthy choices
"When we are with others whom we perceive are similar to ourselves, we usually feel more comfortable and accepted; thus, our values and related behaviors are positively reinforced," says Boulter. "When faced with situations in which we perceive that we are different from others, we often modify our behavior to fit in with the observed ‘normative’ behaviors."
When provided objective data about the norms (vs. what is perceived as the norm because it is the more visible and talked about behavior), individuals’ social comparisons are more accurate. "Publicizing the behaviors of the majority both clarifies what the norms are and positively reinforces the healthy choices made by the majority of Puget Sound’s students," Boulter says.
To publicize Puget Sound’s normative behaviors, the survey results are printed on colorful "Know Your Numbers" posters throughout campus. The bold statement "Most Puget Sound Students (65 percent) have four or fewer drinks when they choose to drink" empowers individuals to make safe, healthy choices about alcohol by clarifying what is normative behavior at Puget Sound. High-risk drinkers (men who consume five or more drinks per setting and women who consume four or more) are likely to realize that their behavior is not as common and acceptable as they had previously thought, and thus may begin to moderate their consumption. Moderate drinkers, who may have thought they were in the minority, are likely to feel a greater sense of belonging and thus more confident when they make responsible, moderate choices. Students who abstain are likely to feel reassured that most students who consume do so in moderation. They will feel less social pressure to question their choice to abstain and will be less likely to begin consuming.
In addition to the "Know Your Numbers" campaign, many educational and social activities available to Puget Sound students promote healthy, responsible choices. During the spring of 1999, Puget Sound participated in National Alcohol Screening Day, which provided the campus community with a variety of educational materials, free substance abuse screening, and opportunities to learn about available support services.
This past fall, Michael Green, a nationally renowned speaker on alcohol abuse, was received by students representing Greek, athletics and residence hall cohorts.
Students also can become involved as peer educators to provide student groups with information on the Puget Sound norms and how to help friends who may be experiencing problems.
Campus-sponsored events, such as the recent Mistletoast dance, provide students with social opportunities that do not involve alcohol consumption.
Resources for parents
A number of resources are available for parents who may be concerned about their son’s or daughter’s drinking. Parents are encouraged to: explain the resources available to students at the CHWS; talk openly with their sons and daughters about alcohol use; reinforce healthy behavior/positive choices; reinforce positive choices they made in college; consider the norms they are setting by examining their own actions and how they present their college years; and discuss healthier choices when drinking, such as limiting the amount of alcohol consumption, eating food prior to drinking, establishing a buddy system, not taking advantage of another sexually and appointing a designated driver.