Getting Drunk = Getting Hurt, Study Finds

May 25, 2005

College students who get drunk regularly are likelier than other students -- even those who drink alcohol -- to physically injure themselves, or to be hurt by other drinkers, according to researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

In a study presented Monday at the annual meeting of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, the researchers found that students who acknowledged being drunk at least once a week were three times likelier to be hurt or injured because of their own drinking than were students who drink alcohol but do not get drunk weekly. Such students were also twice as likely to fall and need medical care and 75 percent more likely to be "sexually victimized." (The question posed to the students defined getting drunk as "being unsteady, dizzy, or sick to your stomach.")

Students who said they got drunk once a week were also more susceptible to being hurt by others -- three times more likely, for instance, to be in an "automobile accident caused by someone else's drinking," and twice as likely "to be taken advantage of sexually by someone who was drinking."

Mary Claire O'Brien, a physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine and public health sciences at the Wake Forest medical center, said in an interview Tuesday that the study's goal was to try to identify a single question that college medical centers and student health officials could ask incoming patients to help identify potentially at-risk students.

She cited research at Yale in which doctors ask all students who are treated at the medical center a series of questions to assess which students are prone to problems with alcohol. In the typical emergency room, though, that's "very labor intensive," O'Brien said. "So our question was: If you only had one shot, one question to ask this population of people, what would you ask them? This is the question: 'In a typical week, how many days do you get drunk?' "

The goal, O'Brien said, is "not to try to find out who's going to become alcohol dependent. As a parent, I want to know what puts my kid at risk for being hurt. I want to be able to say to them, 'If you do this, that's what puts you at the biggest risk.' "

O'Brien said that in her "fantasy" world, academic health centers could ask this question of all students who come through the door. "If I ask you how often you get drunk, and you say 'only on Fridays,' I'd then say: 'If you get drunk even once a week, do you know that you're three times likelier to get injured? Do you know if you even hang out with people who get drunk once a week, your chances of getting hurt go up significantly?'

"It might make you think twice."

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