credit Luke Chafer

Changing the narrative: student drinking culture

By Niamh Flanagan

With the advent of freshers’ week 2022, it is important to reflect on some of the norms of student culture and how we can best avoid falling into unhealthy patterns of behaviour.

Freshers week 2022 is once more upon us here at the University of Glasgow, and it promises to be as hectic, wild, and exhausting as ever. The first week of the university term has always been a time for unbridled indulgence and the relinquishing of any and all social inhibition. Really, freshers’ week is a time and experience like no other, particularly if you are indeed a fresher. For those who are moving out for the very first time, it can be something of a surreal experience; never again in life are you going to find yourself living communally with a randomly selected group of peers in a potentially completely alien city. For many, it is a period that offers opportunity for reinvention and experimentation and certainly an exposure to a level of independence that can be simultaneously liberating and overwhelming. 

All of this to say that freshers’ week can be a hugely positive and exciting experience. However, the values and behaviours that we associate with freshers’ week often become longer standing habits for students – and the ramifications of such behaviours in the long term are not necessarily healthy for the wellbeing and educational success of first year students. As the glow of freshers’ week fades, many students are left with a considerably depleted bank account and a nasty bout of “freshers’ flu”, not to mention an entirely subverted sleeping pattern and appetite. All of this can amount to a pretty hard bump back down to reality and something of a distorted perspective on what healthy boundaries look like in regard to drinking and socialising, at least from personal experience. Casting my mind back to my own freshers’ experience of 2019, as the weeks progressed the first pangs of homesickness began to set in during the aftermath of the freshers’ week pandemonium, accompanied by the stark realisation of just how far from home I was, and just how little I knew the people I lived with. I don’t think this is an uncommon experience, but it doesn’t make for the best pre-drinks chat, and so it’s one that I found wasn’t really discussed at the time. Certainly, I soon began to feel quite isolated in this sensation of being both displaced and overwhelmed, and quickly discovered that the best way to keep the anxiety at bay was to keep busy, to minimise my time alone and stay as distracted as possible. Before long, I had settled into a routine of drinking and going out that was entirely unsustainable, but mirrored that of my peers, and so became a norm that none of us questioned or challenged. 

The lifestyle of excess and over consumption associated with first year students becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re all familiar with the flippant tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of student culture: the excessive drinking, the neglect of studies, and I think that at some level we respond to this. It is all too easy to descend into lifestyle habits that are actively detrimental to your mental health and wellbeing – because you’re a student, and that’s what students do. This isn’t to say that the excesses of student living can’t be fun and are inherently detrimental. But there are some darker consequences to the normalisation of these habits. Research suggests that 41% of UK university students drink to “hazardous” levels, a worrying figure when considering the massive overlap between excessive drinking and poor mental health, particularly depressive episodes. And it goes without saying that the antics of the average student night out often do not stop at drinking. Two in five UK students admit to being drug users – and 66% say that their drug use would most likely cause them to miss out on university commitments such as lectures. Essentially, far more of us are drinking and consuming drugs at concerning levels and at a detriment to our mental health and academic performance than you might imagine. 

The point of highlighting all of this isn’t to say the incoming freshers of 2022 should opt for abstinence from all of the freshers’ fun available to you. It is the prerogative of new first years to spend this time making weird and wonderful memories that you’ll still be fondly recalling in third and fourth year. Saying that, it is important to note that all of this is entirely possible without the aid of alcohol or indeed recreational drug use. 

If you are someone who enjoys a drink, however, just remember that freshers’ week is not a normal time by any stretch of the imagination – and the behaviours you might find yourself falling into are most likely pretty unsustainable. It is exciting and exhilarating but can also be intense, overwhelming, and isolating in equal measure – much like the rest of first year, really. Remember to check in with yourself and remember that whilst alcohol can be an amazing tool in aid of a vibrant social life and thriving friendship circle, it can very easily become an unhealthy coping mechanism that masks over problems in the context of an undoubtedly confusing and disconcerting time.


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