Having A Conversation With A Student Struggling With Alcohol Abuse

College students letting loose on a Friday night, drunkenly dancing with red solo cups in their hands. An enormous pile of beer cans at a tailgate, and thousands of students preparing for the big football game, wearing their school apparel. These images, linking college and alcohol use, are so pervasive and so constant that they have merely become a norm for many of us.

Most high school and college students undergo mandatory alcohol education that aims to combat this perpetuation. These programs teach the risks associated with heavy alcohol use, such as alcohol poisoning, addiction, and legal consequences.

But what do you do when your roommate stumbles home, barely conscious, for the fifth night in a row during finals week? Or when you notice your soft-spoken friend becoming belligerent along with her increased drinking? What if you’re a parent and you visit your college student multiple times to see empty bottles strewn about their room, along with growing piles of unfinished schoolwork?

Of course, no person is the same when it comes to alcohol abuse; the causes, circumstances, and consequences vary. Here are some things to keep in mind when starting a conversation with someone who may have an issue with alcohol.

1. Alcohol abuse is a legitimate and serious issue that affects many college students, and it may be more common than you think. 
You may have heard in the past, “you’re not an alcoholic until after college” or “no one can have an alcohol problem in college, heavy drinking is just a part of the experience.” It is true that drinking is prevalent on college campuses; 4 out of 5 students drink alcohol. However, this culture masks the high number of students with serious alcohol abuse problems. Research has shown that those aged 18-24 had the highest rate of past-year alcohol dependence, out of all other age groups. In addition, 20% of students qualify for alcohol abuse disorder.

Misconceptions can trivialize this illness for affected college students and prevent them from realizing the severity of their condition and seeking help. Clearing these myths may be a crucial part of recognizing a problem.

2. Alcoholism is a disease, not a moral weakness or personality flaw.
In the past, alcoholism was often misunderstood as a moral failing, or a result of lacking willpower. Although these ideas are less prevalent today, the stigma around those with this disorder still lingers. It is important to remember that your loved one/friend is first a person, and then a person with alcoholism. Compassion and warm concern, instead of judgment, is necessary for support.

3. Actions speak louder than words.
Support is not only about discussing your concerns and encouragements but also about being willing to act. The college culture generally equates drinking with socializing or entertainment; 74.4% of students reported that they drink to enhance their social activity, and 71.1% reported drinking to give them something to do. This is an especially difficult atmosphere to prevent or limit alcohol consumption. Supportive action could come in the form of avoiding alcohol-centered social scenes (like house parties and bars) in favor of spending time with friends watching a movie, playing cards, going to concerts or sports events, etc.

4. You cannot be responsible for their change. 
Beginning the path to recovery is anything but a simple process. The person may deny their problem or lash out when approached about their drinking habits. Most importantly, the process requires the dedication of the person and often a team of professionals to guide them toward recovery. An intervention may be an option for those who remain resistant to seeking help despite their dangerous situation.

5. Planning is key.
Thinking of specific situations in which this person’s drinking brought negative consequences is essential in backing your concern. It’s also important to set aside enough uninterrupted time alone to have this conversation. Planning the discussion ahead of time can help you express your concern in the most caring and effective way.

6. There is an array of sources for help, both on and off-campus.
Our addiction and mental health services are here when you need someone to talk to- whether it’s about having this conversation with someone, your own struggles with alcohol, or seeking help for a loved one. Feinberg Consulting helps to create long-term recovery through case management, recovery coaching, and family coaching. Call 877.538.5425 to have a confidential conversation.

Many colleges also have support networks in place for students seeking help for alcohol abuse issues or for those in recovery. These programs can often be found within student health services.

University of Michiganhttps://www.uhs.umich.edu/aodresources
Michigan State Universityhttp://olin.msu.edu/healthpromo/atod/resources.htm
Grand Valley State Universityhttps://www.gvsu.edu/aces/community-providers-21.htm

Online assessments and confidential hotlines are also available to anyone.
Assessment: http://www.rehabs.com/assessments/alcohol-addiction-quiz/

Confidential hotlines:
SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Alcohol Abuse and Crisis Intervention: 1-800-234-0246
These conversations are tough to have and the person may not immediately seek help- however, by bringing up your concern, you can start a ripple leading to positive change. There is hope for recovery with a supportive community of loved ones and professionals.

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  1. You don’t mention the denial that goes on. Nor the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, NA, Al-Anon.

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