Probing question: How serious is the binge drinking problem on college campuses?

The wild college house party filled with students doing keg stands, playing drinking games and passing out drunk is a familiar scene in pop culture. But is this stereotypical scene of college life the exception or the rule? Is binge drinking really a problem on college campuses?

It's complex, says Jeff Hayes, Penn State professor of education and psychology and a licensed psychologist.

According to the data that Hayes and his colleagues from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health have collected from more than 100 college campuses, 56 percent of students don't engage in regular binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks in a row for men, or four or more drinks in a row for women.

"I think it is important to communicate to students that they are not alone, they are not even in the minority, if they choose not to binge drink," says Hayes. "On a large university campus, there are plenty of students who are not drinking -- not just not binge drinking, -- but not drinking at all."

Hayes believes that the key to helping students resist the college drinking culture is having attractive alternative activities and programs such as Penn State's "HUB Late Night" at the University Park campus and expanded recreational athletic activities. However, notes Hayes, the flipside of that 56 percent statistic is that 44 percent of students are binge drinking. And while that is less than half, it is still a sizable minority. For those students, there are often problems.

"Students who are binge drinking with great frequency tend to be far more suicidal than their peers who are binge drinking less frequently or not at all," says Hayes. "They also tend to have greater mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety, and they often struggle academically." In addition, Hayes' research reveals that as many as 33 percent of students report being unable to remember what happened the night before, being unable to do what is expected of them or feeling guilt or remorse after a night of drinking.

The troubling statistics don't end there. A recent article by Hayes and his colleagues in the Journal of College Counseling concluded that nearly 1,900 college students nationwide die from alcohol-related injuries each year. Approximately 600,000 students are injured under the influence of alcohol annually, Hayes points out, and an additional 700,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking. In fact, approximately 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape every year.

Many students participate in binge drinking, Hayes suggests, because it may be a reaction to what is, for many students, the first taste of freedom that they've experienced in life. "I think that there is part of a normative developmental experience of going away to college and experimenting," says Hayes. "They are pushing the boundaries for themselves."

In addition, many students do not see their drinking as a problem. "I see a number of students in my private practice," explains Hayes. "A lot of them are not seeking help for drinking problems. They are seeking help for depression or relationship problems. The alcohol problems are present, but they don't think they have a problem because they don't drink any more than their friends do."

Hayes acknowledges that it is sometimes a chicken-or-the-egg question: Is a student using alcohol to cope with problems, or is a student drinking to excess and therefore experiencing problems? "Our data don't allow us to tease apart the causality, but, in reality what I find clinically, what you get into is a cycle that feeds on itself," he notes. "And the substance abuse has to be addressed, whether it is the cause of the problem, exacerbating the problem or an outcome of the original problem."

The silver lining in Hayes' research is that when a friend, a family member, or someone else who cares about a student expresses concern about that student's excessive drinking, that message tends to raise a student's own concern. "We don't have to assume a passive role as faculty members, resident assistants, roommates, fraternity or sorority members," says Hayes. "If you are concerned about someone, expressing that concern, difficult though it may be, can put them on a path toward changing their drinking."

Jeffrey Hayes is professor of counseling psychology in the College of Education and can be reached at jxh34@psu.edu.

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Last Updated September 05, 2013