Binge drinking need not be the norm

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Kelly Bender remembers her “light bulb moment.” That moment when she gained a new understanding of the big, underlying issue surrounding risky alcohol use.

“I was exploring social and psychological influences, and the messages we’re getting from the community about what’s normal and what’s expected when it comes to drinking…and it clicked. Our personal health choices, even if they’re risky to us — even if we KNOW they’re risky to us — they seem normal because of our environment,” Bender says. “No amount of educating young people about the risks and consequences of drinking too much will change their habits if the community is telling them, ‘Drinking is going to make you socially acceptable and successful. You’re going to meet people. You’re going to have so much fun. These are the best days of your life, and if you don’t take full advantage and go crazy, you’re going to regret it.’

“This is the message that young people are getting. And it’s not been healthy for them.”

Bender is passionate about working toward changing those messages and redefining “normal.” In August, she became the university’s first coordinator of campus and community alcohol harm reduction initiatives after spending eight years working in substance abuse prevention at MECCA Services of Iowa City.

She spoke with fyi about her new role, the challenges facing her, and how staff and faculty can help change student alcohol use.

Your position was created just this summer. Can you give us a brief overview of your job as coordinator of campus and community alcohol harm reduction initiatives?
I break it up in my mind into two parts. The university has an internal Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan (available at dos.uiowa.edu/assets/plan.pdf) and I coordinate that. The plan involves several goals, lots of different strategies within those goals, and multiple departments across campus. My role is to make sure that the strategies we have in place are in line with scientific evidence, and that we are collecting data to support that those strategies are working for us, and to keep things on track.

I also report back to the community to share how things are going. We had great success in year one (the 2010-11 academic year) with implementing everything that was outlined in the plan, and the high-risk drinking rate of our students went down.

The other part of my job is to coordinate the Partnership for Alcohol Safety (www.alcoholpartnership.org). That’s a coalition I was a part of before I came to this position. It’s important to connect the city and the university in this effort because they are not separate in this community. We need to work together to support and reinforce changes. We have a lot of diversity on the coalition, which means change is going to happen pretty slowly, but it’s going to be more effective. We’ve been together three years; we’re getting to the place where we’re moving in the same direction.

How do you respond to people who doubt that it’s possible to change the culture of drinking among college students?
I respond with the total understanding of that point of view. Because it is an enormous task. There are all sorts of factors involved. An issue like alcohol is not simple. It’s not good or bad, yes or no. It’s about finding a balance.

In many ways drinking to the point of intoxication has become normalized. We are beginning to address it and recognize as a community that it’s not in our best interest to have that normalization for adults or young people, because it leads to a lot of problems for everyone. We need to make getting and being drunk less socially acceptable. If we can get to that point we’ve made great progress.

While tobacco is a very different issue because there is not a low-risk way to use tobacco, it is an example of cultural change. Today, it’s just unthinkable that someone would smoke in a hospital or on an airplane. But there was a time when that was normal, and it was unthinkable to change it. The 21-ordinance was controversial and a lot of people still don’t support it, but the fact that it passed is a sign of societal change in this community. It’s a sign of “Let’s do something differently.”

Why the focus on “alcohol harm reduction” and “alcohol safety,” rather than telling students, especially underage students, “Don’t drink.”?
Part of it is communicating a message that’s going to be received a little bit better. The total abstinence message doesn’t feel realistic to a lot of people.

An issue like alcohol is not simple. It’s not good or bad, yes or no. It’s about finding a balance.

Some people say, “Why are you focusing on underage drinking when it’s really excessive drinking that’s the problem?” They’re really not separate issues at all. As a group, underage drinkers are high-risk drinkers. Eighteen- to 20-year-olds have among the highest high-risk drinking rates of any age group. When they drink, they’re not going out for a beer. They’re drinking in order to get drunk. They’re drinking very quickly, and they’re drinking large amounts of alcohol. They may drink less frequently, but they drink more when they drink. And research shows that the longer you wait to start drinking, the less likely you are to have problems with alcohol later in life.

Just waiting is a really important message for that group; it’s just not as popularly received.

What roles would you like to see UI staff and faculty play in supporting and reaching the goals laid out by Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan?
Many already have been involved by helping to create and implement the plan. They also can have a great role in changing the way we talk about alcohol, especially if they work with first-year students—vulnerable young people who are trying to make decisions about what to do with their lives. It’s important to avoid making comments in class, even in a joking manner, that might normalize high-risk drinking.

Faculty are committed to a rigorous education, but they have to compete with the social aspect of a student’s life. Some 18-year-olds are not really sure what they want yet; a strong social influence to go in a partying direction can have an enormous impact on students’ choices and can lead them off the path of academic excellence that’s within their capabilities.

So set high expectations for students in the classroom. We should have academic standards in all areas of study that create an environment that is less conducive to heavy drinking and that pushes students to reach their full potential. And research supports this: Friday morning classes that require attendance and participation and administer quizzes or tests really help change student drinking behavior on Thursday nights.

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