Since the new academic year began, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question as I stand at the bar, ordering my new drink of choice, a J2O. The Go Sober for October challenge, where participants give up alcohol for the month of October in return for charity sponsorship, has hit campus this year on a far greater scale than in previous years. The QMU’s Charities and Campaigns Committee are taking part, in aid of their charity of the semester, Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland. Given the prevalence of alcohol in the typical student experience, it’s not hard to see why people are confused when I tell them it was my choice, sans sponsorship, to give up alcohol.
Contrary to media depictions of student life, university can often be a lonely experience - it’s not all flat parties and club nights. An increasing number of students live at home and miss out on the experience of halls and flat shares. Studying is a solitary activity, particularly if you do a course with a low number of contact hours and a high emphasis on personal study. For these students, putting themselves out there and attending clubs and societies can be the only way to meet new people and make friends, and most societies meet in pubs. This in itself is not always an issue; I’ve been lucky enough to have never experienced pressure to drink at a university event. There is something about alcohol. though, that seems to make conversation flow and help a group of people bond. When you can’t be involved with that, it is difficult not to feel left out.
The dominance of alcohol-fuelled activities at university becomes even more concerning when you consider the high number of students suffering from mental health conditions. With referrals to the university’s counselling services rapidly increasing each academic year, is it really healthy that so much of student life at our university revolves around getting drunk? It is well known that alcohol exacerbates the symptoms of mental health problems and on top of this, patients are encouraged to avoid alcohol whilst taking certain medications for conditions such as anxiety and depression. Giving up alcohol as a student is easier said than done; when alcohol is the key to most social events, an inability to drink can deepen these feelings of isolation.
It’s clear why the Sober for October challenge has attracted some controversy, from non drinkers and avid boozers alike; but it’s difficult to criticise anything that raises money for charity. It is undeniable that the money raised by those participating in the challenge will help worthy causes. But is ditching booze really the best way to go about this? What does it say about the student experience that staying sober is an activity that warrants charity sponsorship? Especially when you consider the binge drinking, which students doing the challenge are likely to partake in, when the clock hits midnight on 1 November.
When you face life at university, booze-free every day, the challenge can seem insensitive. Sobriety is presented as a gimmick, rather than a valid personal choice. Many students choose not to drink, whether it’s for their health, financial reasons or just because the idea of making an idiot of themselves after one too many Jagerbombs isn’t appealing.
It’s easy to feel bitter, but at very least the challenge has started a conversation. Giving up alcohol for any reason is not easy, especially if it plays a part in your social life. But drinking alcohol shouldn’t be a prerequisite to a happy and fulfilling university experience. With such a high number of students taking part this year, perhaps we can all realise that it is possible to have a good time without your favourite tipple in hand.
Alcohol might seem like a shortcut when you’re getting to know people, but in reality, good friendships need more than just a boozy night out every once in a while. If Sober for October makes people more accepting of the decision not to drink excessively at university, that can only be a good thing.