Challenging our drinking culture by degrees

UCC tries to get to grips with the problem of alcohol use and misuse in students.

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Alcohol use and abuse among university students is one of the most significant challenges facing those involved in educating and supporting today’s students. The adverse consequences of excessive drinking among students include physical injury, damage to relationships and risk- taking behaviour, including unprotected sexual activity.

Students also experience the negative academic fallout from missing lectures and assignment deadlines with concern being expressed at the link between student drop-out rates and alcohol consumption.

Head of the student health department at UCC Dr Michael Byrne notes: “The adverse consequences of the misuse of alcohol among our students are very real, all too common and occasionally have been very serious, up to and including devastating injury and death.”

Many Irish students come to university as experienced drinkers due to their early induction into alcohol, says Dr Byrne; first- year students with poor coping skills are particularly vulnerable to developing an over-reliance on alcohol.

There is considerable work going on in UCC to try to get to grips with the problem of alcohol use and misuse in students. The issue has been identified as the number one priority of the health matters initiative which is working towards making UCC an officially recognised health-promoting university by 2014.

The college developed a comprehensive alcohol action plan in 2010 (that has since been revised) that recently won the overall award in the Irish Healthcare Awards as well as Best Public Health Initiative.

(In)effective measures
In developing the plan, Dr Byrne says, a significant amount of time was spent looking at measures that have been proven to be effective (or not) in dealing with alcohol use and misuse among student bodies internationally.

“Measures that impact on the whole student body such as limiting availability, restricting advertising and marketing, alcohol-free alternatives, substance-free housing, consistent enforcement of policy and eliminating the three-day weekend have been shown to be effective in reducing alcohol-related harm among college students.

“ At the individual level, screening and brief intervention is effective . . . interventions shown to have no effect include campaigns advising ‘just say no’ to alcohol, educational programmes not linked to other methods, advertising campaigns using guilt, shame or fear, inconsistent policies and procedures or requiring or compelling students to do alcohol education courses.”

Students and staff at UCC are provided with education and information on the many effects of the harmful use of alcohol and training in how to recognise and advise a student or colleague with alcohol-related harmful behaviour.

Over the past three years, 10,000-plus students have completed ePUB UCC, an online brief intervention tool for all incoming first-year students.

An evidence-based personalised alcohol intervention, ePUB has demonstrated significant reductions in destructive alcohol use among college students in the US.

At times of higher risk such as Fresher’s Week and Raise and Give Week (formerly Rag Week) and end-of-term exams, student patrols are out on campus to monitor the university’s zero-tolerance policy to anti-social behaviour, while there is close liaison with local gardaí and residents groups.

Ties to alcohol industry
Dr Byrne was delighted at the decision by the Union of Students of Ireland (USI) to withdraw from the drinkaware.ie campaign, citing concerns over its ties to the alcohol industry and the muted response to the Arthur’s Day celebrations.

“To have a drinks industry group sponsoring an organisation that had access to each of the campuses in Ireland for the provision of information around ‘responsible drinking’ was certainly something many professionals and practitioners who work in universities and schools with young people were concerned about,” he says.

“I have sensed for a year or two that the tide is beginning to change in our attitude towards alcohol and this was crystalised this year with the adverse publicity around Arthur’s Day.”

Drinking habits
While the drinking habits among students are still of great concern, Dr Byrne points out that UCC’s research shows that the average number of drinks its students are consuming has decreased year on year over the past three years from 25.8 per week in 2010 to 20 per week in 2013.

“My view is that this decrease has been triggered by the economic downturn but I would like to believe that our work and the active efforts of those involved in counter-measuring the drinks industry like Action Alcohol Ireland has also had an impact,” he says.

By Michelle McDonagh

Published in The Irish Times, Health & Family, Tuesday, December 31, 2013