Why we need to de-normalise student drinking culture

It’s midday on a Saturday, and a group of friends sit around the kitchen table in varying states of bleary-eyed messiness. As one raids the fridge looking for carbs to go with the much-needed coffee, another replays last night’s Instagram story and occasionally groans at the embarrassing content recorded therein. A third swallows ibuprofen and hopes no-one will remember her throwing up last night. The collective headache and churning nausea hanging over the room is accepted – expected, even. It is what brings them together in the coming hours of attempting to study and watch films at the same time.

Just another typical morning-after in a student household, right? Wrong.

The problem with normalising it

Why do we romanticise and normalise this narrative about something which studies have proven again and again is often excessive, addictive and linked to several physical and mental health problems?

There is nothing wrong with having a drink now and then, or enjoying the taste of alcohol, or finding the tipsy feeling enjoyable… in moderation.

However, student drinking culture is not one of moderation. It is excessive and frequently dangerous – if we have to use phrases like “paralytic” or “totally gone” or “smashed” to describe someone’s state on a night out, I have to wonder how it is not immediately obvious that that person is not safe or healthy. Getting drunk on a regular basis increases the risks we experience unimaginably. That includes risks in the short term: personal safety, vigilance against theft or assault, reflexes to protect against accidents, our ability to make sensible decisions… as well as in the long term: permanent liver damage, addiction, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and even changes to fertility.

I know I am not telling you anything new. Students know the risks of drinking; countless campaigns aimed at different sections of the population have warned of the dangers of binge drinking or drinking too much too regularly. Many freshers’ weeks will half-heartedly try to address the issue. The problem is that we have already internalised the myth that “everyone drinks at university”, and so we do it anyway, because it’s just what students do.

More than health risks

This is the second problem with student drinking culture: it is often isolating for those who cannot or do not want to drink alcohol. Whether or not you’re drinking alcohol or not seems to be more of interest to your peers than what your favourite drink actually is. If you’re with a group in a bar and you’re drinking water, it’s generally not long before someone asks pointedly why you’re not drinking – as if you need a good reason other than personal preference – or tries to persuade you to join them. It seems like your choice of beverage somehow affects them. The worst I’ve received by far was when I spent a few weeks not drinking much and was accused of ‘being so boring lately’.

Alcohol seems to have been equated in our student drinking culture to fun. As if adding alcohol to any activity is automatically the equation for a good night, rather than one for some questionable decisions and a headache in the morning.

It has also been equated to a coping mechanism. Just broken up with your other half? Stressed about exams? Feeling lonely and lost? Don’t worry, student drinking culture says all you probably need is a trip to the bar and maybe a rebound kiss at the club you’ll barely remember.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that by itself. In difficult situations, it’s a good idea to find ways to de-stress, distract yourself, and spend time with friends. If you enjoy a vodka and coke and a night out with friends now and then, and it helps you, that’s great. The problem lies in the situations where this becomes the main or only coping mechanism, where alcohol is (ab)used instead of tackling deeper issues like poor self-esteem or anxiety or unhealthy levels of stress in the long term. We learn to rely on nights out to let off steam, rather than developing a range of activities which can help us without poisoning our livers in the meantime.

The first step to de-normalising this culture is to ask more questions of yourself and your peers. Next time you reach for the bottle, try to be more aware of how much you’re drinking and why: are you enjoying the experience as a process in the moment, or simply trying to get to the result (being drunk)? Are you drinking because you want to, or because you feel you ‘need’ to?

If we know the risks and awareness campaigns just aren’t working, what can we do instead? The problem is often ease of access. Many people who come to university have already been drinking frequently at home, and while some think that the sudden spike in drinking at university comes from it being a novelty, studies have shown that students accustomed to drinking from a younger age are likely to drink more later than those who are not so used to it. Clearly, then, it’s necessary first of all to crack down on underage drinking, and to rethink the narratives we build around alcohol in wider society: in films, music, TV programs.

Alcohol is particularly cheap and prevalent in student areas, meaning that no amount of education is going to make it any harder to reach for that next pint of beer. While I’m not suggesting we make it unaffordable, we should make it harder to buy very high-alcohol drinks multiple times in a night for very low prices – as is often the case at student nights. The truth is that our wallets often have more impact on our actions than any number of good intentions we start off with.

There is no easy solution. It is something we must work on together, as a society. But what I do know is this: nothing will change anytime soon if we continue to normalise unhealthy drinking habits as simply “part of being a student”.

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