Nipped in the Bud

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The statistics are alarming. Nine out of 10 college students experiment with alcohol. Seven out of 10 drink regularly. Nearly three in 10 will be problem drinkers.

“Heavy drinking is a prevalent health problem on college campuses nationwide, and USD is not immune to the consequences,” says associate psychology professor Michael Ichiyama.

Clearly, the freedom that comes with going away to college is the impetus for at least some underage students to drink. Now, USD is taking a leadership role with its proactive stance: The school recently sought and received a $788,000 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to address the touchy topic head-on. The grant — one of the largest in USD history — looks at freshman attitudes and whether an instruction book that helps parents communicate with their children can keep alcohol-related problems at bay.

“Parents have been an untapped resource when it comes to reducing or preventing heavy drinking and its related problems among college undergraduates,” says Ichiyama, who is co-investigator for the grant, along with principal investigator Louise Stanger, USD’s director of alcohol and drug education.

A survey will involve some 450 randomly selected incoming freshmen and a larger sample next year. About half of their parents were chosen to receive the handbook. Students were surveyed on family interaction and their own alcohol use before the semester began, and will answer questions again later to see whether the children of parents who used the handbook fare any better when it comes to indulging in risky behaviors like binge drinking, unprotected sex and physical altercations.

Rather than just instructing parents, the 45-page handbook — written by Rob Turrisi, who is participating in the USD study as a consultant — lays out possible teen reactions and objections, and gives parents ideas about how to respond to their children’s certainty that the folks can’t understand what they’re going through. The handbook is also peppered with first-person tales from college students about grim subjects like being raped after drinking or of knocking back “at least 15 beers.”

USD’s challenge is to help produce a safety net so that underage students don’t echo nationwide trends, says Stanger. “There are some norms that say, ‘I go to college and one of the things I do at college is experiment.’ I don’t think USD is any different.”

Several students who helped enlist new freshmen to complete the survey agreed alcohol can be a factor during the first years of college. Each says they have seen others fall into what appeared to be bad patterns with alcohol. Drew Scott, a USD sophomore studying psychology, says his parents have always had a measure of guidance in his life. “They knew I would have more freedom here. They never said, ‘You cannot drink.’ Mostly they just showed me that the possible repercussions were far greater than the ‘rewards’ of drinking.”

Chris Webb, 21, a USD psychology senior this fall, says those who overindulge may have come to school with underlying issues. Nonetheless, she does view some parents as in denial: “I think it’s really asinine to think your child will go to college and not drink until they’re 21. I think it’s inevitable.”

That may not be what parents want to hear, but one parent who wishes she’d known more of her son’s struggles is Chris Volkmann, co-author with son Toren ’02 of Our Drink: Detoxing the Perfect Family. Toren had already been caught drinking several times when he entered USD. Once he entered college, he was able to cover up some of the trouble he got into.

“A lot of kids abusing alcohol may be abusing it eight to nine years by the time they graduate college,” says Volkmann. “By then, they almost don’t know how to function without it.” 

That’s why it’s important to quell the most extreme behavior before it becomes rote habit, and why the goal of the study is to see if parental influence can provide the extra nudge that keeps a dabbler on the safer end of the drinking continuum. — Kelly Knufken

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