Drunk Support

August 3, 2011

College students like to drink. Sometimes they drink too much. And sometimes they pay the price – academically, socially, and sometimes, with their lives. No matter how well-intentioned they are, educational prevention methods like posters and lectures alone will not stop all this from happening.

Students know this. Administrators know this. Yet, according to new research, the vast majority of colleges, when it comes to prevention, are leaving an extraordinary resource untapped – the students themselves.

The term “drunk support” refers to the social nature of the college drinking scene, in which students push each other through the party with drinking games and gifted shots, but also help each other with bagels and water and escorts home. It’s coined by Thomas Vander Ven, an Ohio University associate professor of sociology, in his new book out today, Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party Too Hard (NYU Press).

If colleges were to acknowledge that this system exists – whereby students who drink also take care of each other when they throw up, counsel each other when they’re upset, and intervene before situations get out of hand -- and if they encouraged students to employ harm-reduction strategies in these settings, they could join forces with those very students to minimize risk, Vander Ven concludes.

“Part of the reason why students continue to engage in dangerous drinking practices is the significant drunk support that they provide to one another when crises arise,” he writes. “Many college students are already mobilized to reduce the potential harms produced by collective intoxication. Maybe it is time to get the drinkers themselves more instrumentally involved in making college drinking a less dangerous enterprise.”

Vander Ven arrived at this conclusion after collecting anecdotes and interviews from more than 400 students on what happens when they drink too much -- and conducting 100 hours of field research at parties and bars. He didn't identify the three institutions the students attended, but described them as a small private college in the northern central United States, a commuter-based state institution in the Southeast, and a large state university in the Midwest. The harm-reduction approach Vander Ven advocates is not unheard-of in higher education; counselors frequently encourage bystander intervention in situations where sexual violence seems likely. While there’s clearly some overlap in that arena (Vander Ven's book also discusses the link between intoxication and casual sex), the technique is less common in addressing strictly alcohol issues. (Though some colleges have employed similar methods to address other forms of substance use, such as marijuana.)

“I think practitioners and I think policy people at universities recognize that students don’t want to be talked down to, and they don’t want to just be told, ‘You shouldn’t drink; that’s bad,' ” Vander Ven said in an interview. “Harm reduction in general is controversial – the idea that we sort of just resign ourselves to the fact that it’s out there. But personally, I’m not advocating a bystander-intervention approach only…. I don’t suggest abandoning the other programs.”

People who run alcohol bystander intervention programs agree that they're rare, and the ones that do exist vary in the degree to which they’re institutionalized. For instance, programs at Haverford and Dartmouth Colleges are almost entirely student-run, while the national Red Watch Band program, headquartered at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is run out of the counseling center.

Since a Stony Brook faculty member whose son died from an alcohol overdose started the program two years ago, Red Watch Band has trained 600 student volunteers on that campus -- and about 3,000 at 150 other colleges -- in CPR, the signs of an alcohol overdose and when and why to call 911. (Stony Brook says its lack of an amnesty program – without which students who call police or are sent to the hospital could face interventions or educational sanctions for their actions – doesn’t seem to prevent requests for help.)

Lara Hunter, the program’s national coordinator and a substance abuse counselor at Stony Brook, said she could imagine some initial resistance to a prevention effort that’s not based in abstinence. But, she noted, while the Red Watch Band should be used in conjunction with other strategies like judicial systems, post-incident intervention and, of course, good old education, the reality is that practitioners don’t get invited to the parties – so the most they can do is prepare the students who will be there. (Hunter also takes the “flood of interest” from other colleges as a good sign.)

“This is something they struggle with,” Hunter said. “They have been in those situations and didn’t know what to do for a friend who was drinking.”

As an undergraduate at Haverford, Jeff Millman organized the Quaker Bouncers, a group that, through student fees, pays students $10.25 an hour to monitor parties in teams of two. The position has only two requirements: first, a four-hour training session in which, among other things, the student talks to EMTs and learns what to do when a person might have alcohol poisoning; second, the student must be 100-percent sober while on the job.

“Most of the time at the school, we just sort of trust each other to take care of each other. There’s sort of an understanding in college that people in college are going to drink and people under 21 are going to drink,” said Julie Sieth, a recent Haverford graduate who was among the group’s leaders during her four years at the college. “The students very quickly realized that the people working at the parties were their friends and peers, and were not there to get them in trouble, but instead to help them. More times than not, I had people come up to me and thank me for whatever I did for them while they were super-drunk at a party.”

Last year Millman adapted the Quaker Bouncers to a model more fit for Dartmouth, where he is now an M.B.A. candidate. At Haverford, a college whose 1,200 students live – and, unless they’re going to the bars, party – almost entirely on campus, the Quaker Bouncers act more as a student club. The Green Team, in contrast, largely monitors Greek parties around the 6,000-student campus, and is funded by the administration; President Jim Yong Kim’s office covers the students’ salaries of $44 a night at two or three parties a week.

Like the Red Watch Band, Millman is trying to help other colleges set up student-run peer intervention programs through his start-up business, SOTEER (the name is a nod to Soter, the Greek god of safety and deliverance). “What we’re really trying to do is make students safer. And when it was put in those terms to Dartmouth, there was overall support for the program,” Millman said, “all the way up to President Kim.”

When hosts request the help of the Dartmouth or Haverford groups, the student monitors roam the party and do things like distribute food and water, watch out for aggressive behavior, and check out bathrooms when it seems like someone’s been in there for too long. At Haverford they also check IDs to make sure attendees are students.

Millman says that at Haverford, the number of students hospitalized per night is 80 percent lower when the Quaker Bouncers are monitoring parties. More than 200 students are trained members. Dartmouth’s Green Team only began in March, but so far, there have been no hospitalizations, reports of sexual abuse or vandalism at monitored parties, Millman said. More than 300 students have been trained there.

Max Yoeli, Dartmouth’s student body president and a fraternity member who has both worked on and benefited from the Green Team, works on SOTEER as well. He believes the group’s model can be scaled to work on any campus. “At the very basic event level, whether you’re at Ohio State University with 30,000 people or Haverford with barely over 1,000, it’s still teams of two monitoring a party,” Yoeli said. “You make small interventions to change the trajectory of an individual’s night such that a potentially bad situation doesn’t turn into a dangerous situation.”

That's all Vander Ven could ask for. He ends Getting Wasted with “a final word to college drinkers: If you are going to drink (and we know that many of you are), I have just one request. Take care of each other.”

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