As we make our way through dry January, one student shares their experience of just how damaging the alcohol-dependent student stereotype can be.
In the pre-Covid era, and perhaps even more problematically in this Covid era, the stereotypical life of a university student revolves around alcohol. This stereotype covers various different things from party-induced binge drinking to drinking daily, to morning drinking, to getting drunk frequently, and to not being able to socialise without at least having one drink, or two, or three.
This reputation may be unsurprising to most, but it’s also highly damaging, as what it actually does is normalise dangerous drinking behaviours and coping mechanisms. It communicates to us students that it’s OK to get blackout drunk every weekend. That it’s alright to always lean on alcohol for comfort and relief from our problems and stressors. That it’s fine and normal, and perhaps even funny, to not remember the last time you went longer than a day without a drink. But it really isn’t: it’s actually quite concerning.
This is because, when this drinking behaviour becomes the norm amongst students and when the stereotype becomes the reality, it can very easily escalate into alcohol dependency. A recent report by the National Union of Students found that 60% of students in the UK use alcohol in social situations to relax, 70% use alcohol to fit in and 79% believe that drinking is part and parcel of their university experience. These are worrying statistics. Especially because we often laugh at the stories of excessive drinking that our friends relay to us, and at times we even commend their excessive use of alcohol in stressful situations. Rarely, if ever, do we express loud and clear concerns about a friend’s drinking habits.
With the current lockdown restrictions and the various changes that this past year has brought, I went through a scary spiral. It took problematic drinking from a distant stereotype to it being my reality; from a laughing matter to an obsession; manifesting in several visits to A&E and notes in my medical record titled “severe alcohol intoxication”. What followed were subtle concerns from friends disguised as jokes which did nothing to change my mindset. I developed an ever-growing reliance on alcohol, a dependency that landed me first in my GP’s office, then in the waiting room of my community addictions team and finally, in a detox ward. All the while, I justified my drinking behaviours in my head by convincing myself that it was normal: this is what all students do. I’m not ill. I’m not dependent. I’m just being a student. I’ve got it under control.
But I had none of it under control. I was ill and my illness was disguised behind the damaging stereotype of what it means to be a university student. Based on this “norm”, it probably would have been more concerning to those around me if I were teetotal, rather than my dangerous reality. It is for this reason that we should be ever more concerned about how the stereotypes we hold both normalise and increase the prevalence of alcohol dependency amongst students. In social situations, I now tell others “I can’t drink, because I’m on medication that essentially makes me allergic to alcohol.” Despite this, I’m still sometimes urged to have just one. This needs to change.
Luckily, there has never been a better time than now to re-evaluate our societal relationship to student drinking culture. Covid has wreaked havoc on almost everything, including the usual pub and booze-filled freshers’ week. This, however, offers us a golden opportunity to remodel what the expectations and events of student socialising should look like moving forward. It’s now easier than ever to plan daytime activities, online quizzes and other well-being centred events; shifting the focus away from booze-fuelled socials and nights that cannot be remembered. It’s now easier than ever to make alcohol consumption at university less of an expectation and a requirement to fit in, and more of an informed choice.
Being a university student shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore our concerns over someone’s drinking behaviours, whether it’s binge drinking, day drinking, or utilising alcohol as a coping mechanism. If anything, problematic drinking in students should especially be cause for concern, as students are already under heavy academic and social pressures, possibly living away from home for the first time, and are therefore fairly likely to be suffering from poor mental health. Mixing alcohol into this only makes things worse. Now is as good a time as ever to begin re-evaluating our damaging reputation, challenging it, and changing the narrative that we attach to being a university student in the UK. My journey and recovery from alcohol dependency will be long, and I can’t help but wonder: if the world had held different stereotypes, if my social circle hadn’t normalised problematic drinking, would I still be where I am now?
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