How to Fix Something Not Everyone Thinks is Broken

Dr. Asher Morgan, NASPA IV-W Alcohol and Other Drugs KC Representative

October 3, 2016

Even for young adults who have planned to attend college since preschool, college is a rite of passage. It marks a time of initial “independence” and comes complete with the opportunity to make as many mistakes as you want, without them really “counting.”  

There are situations and life experiences that do not happen anywhere other than a college environment. Some of those are positive, some of them are not, most leave impressions.

Substance abuse is seen as one of these blasé “mistakes”; an imaginary line in the sand at which students experiment with previously taboo things such as alcohol, marijuana, and prescription drugs… and for some, harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Each student comes to college with a different substance abuse history and different reasons for why they may or may not have tried (insert your favorite illicit substance here) yet. The one unavoidable truth, however, is that once young adults get to college, especially if they will be living in a residence hall, it will be around and easily obtainable. Regardless of their decision to imbibe or use, they will feel the effects of others’ use in noise at all hours, vomit covered bathrooms or hallways, Snapchat stories filled with pictures and videos of the party of the night, and mumblings in class of the weekend before or the weekend to come.

As student affairs and university professionals this has us always on alert. What student has urinated/thrown-up/passed-out on what part of university property this time? Whose office does this go to? How do we manage the next potential crisis? What programs can we provide as alternatives to give students something other to do but get drunk and/or high?

When did the healthy behavior become the alternative? When did we lose our balance to such a point that students drinking to a stupor or getting so high that they cannot tell you where they are become the norm? Why do we have to continuously entertain students so they won’t get bored and will take care of themselves? These are all rhetorical questions of course, but definitely something to ponder. It also raises questions about traditional prevention programming. Twenty-five years of alcohol prevention research has only proven one thing, nothing prevents college students from getting drunk or high if they choose to do so. “Prevention” does not work.

The field of alcohol and other drug prevention has been in a transition for a while, with professionals moving away from traditional “Just Say NO” programming and telling students what not to do, to a harm reduction approach. Research shows that an individual’s brain does not stop developing until they are approximately 25 years of age. The government has determined that individuals under the age of 21 are not mature enough to handle consuming alcohol and that drugs are dangerous and, therefore, illegal to consume. There are laws and regulations in place to try to “protect” us from ourselves. What does this mean to someone who is being thrust into adulthood, pushed out from under the protective umbrella of home, and into the ocean of freedom that college provides?

For us, it means we must effectively embrace harm reduction. Harm reduction is about having open, honest conversations with students about their use, expectations, and then potential consequences of their actions. It is providing students with the information, both on use and the resulting consequences, so that they can make an educated decision for themselves.

This generation of students has all the information they could ever possibly need and want at their fingertips. They do not respond to scare tactics and stories/lessons of what they should and should not be doing. They have an awareness of what is legal and illegal, what is against university policy and what is not. They understand they are taking a risk. What they do not know or have are the skills to navigate these situations if something gets out of hand, or to say “no” if they do not want to participate. The culture with which they are navigating is all about perception and if they are not blending in with everyone else and racking up the likes on Instagram then something must be wrong with them.

This brings us back to wellness and those “alternatives” that I mentioned earlier. Our students are the most connected individuals that any generation has ever known. They can get in touch with someone instantly and have a plethora of mediums through which they can communicate. At the same time, they are the most disconnected generation seen in possibly forever as they do not know how to communicate face to face, be assertive and advocate for themselves, or say “no” to the things that deep down they are not comfortable with. The things they know and the conversations they are yearning for may make us uncomfortable. That is where the current stigma lies. However, their openness and willingness to address these topics and engage in conversations about these topics should make us hopeful. They do want to get better and be better than generations before them, as we have all experienced.

Being drunk or high does not have to be the typical college experience, it can be the alternative. But this is going to take a nationwide culture shift of being willing to have the hard conversations, listening when the things that they talk about experiencing or wanting to try makes us uncomfortable, battling for policy that helps create culture change in a way that is proactive and positive, and guiding students as they figure out who they are and what decisions they want to make and can live with. After all, that is really the rite of passage of college. It is the beginning of discovering who they truly are, what they stand for, and the individual they want to become. 

The best things we can do as student affairs, faculty, and higher education professionals is to know the resources for your campus. These include the Counseling Center, Student Conduct office, Dean of Students office, as well as who is responsible for substance use/abuse programming on campus, and which of your faculty are willing to be stakeholders in substance programming. Changing the culture of college drinking and drug use is not something that can be done by just one individual, it has to be a collaborative, campus-wide effort. Substance abuse is one of the leading causes of attrition on college campuses. Everyone should have an interest in the efforts being made on their campus and the resources available to students, as well as faculty and staff. 

Dr. Asher Morgan is the Director of the Substance Education & Alcohol Resources office at the University of Arkansas. They can be reached at [email protected]

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