When the next wave of new students arrive at university in September, it can safely be assumed that the majority already have a plan regarding how the infamous Freshers’ Week is going to play out. Staying out until the early morning, bonding with new people, dancing for hours in dark sweaty clubs and, of course, drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.
Most people couldn’t face the aforementioned activities without the social lubricant of alcohol. It makes us feel better – more confident, more amusing, more likeable – at least in our own minds. It can remove the overwhelming shyness that takes over when you’re thrown into such a whirlwind of unfamiliar situations, the shyness that makes people think you’re stuck-up and standoffish, when really you just don’t want to say anything embarrassing that you’ll play over in your head for the next three years to come. Alcohol breaks down that barrier for you, and excuses all manner of behaviour that would be unacceptable when sober. Alcohol can make a difficult transition period much easier, so it’s no wonder most freshers automatically reach for the vodka and coke.
In fact, it would be far more unusual not to. 80 per cent of the new students will consume alcohol during Fresher’s Week – for some, it will be their first experience of drinking at all. When you’re away from home and free from your parents’ influence for the first time, it’s easy to let your first taste of freedom go to your head. Suddenly, no one is there to tell you not to mix your drinks or encourage you to have a glass of water in between. It doesn’t help that so much of Freshers’ Week is associated with alcohol – between the club flyers you’re inundated with outside the Students’ Union and the events flooding the Facebook Freshers’ pages, it’s almost impossible to avoid planning your entire first week around it. Even trying out for a sports team often involves drinking to excess, with non-participation looking like a lack of commitment. With your student loan burning a hole in your bank account, it’s tempting to spend it on alcohol.
Initially, the consequences don’t appear to be any worse than a bad hangover and a few missed lectures. You don’t need to be responsible about drinking alcohol because it’s associated with the direct opposite – it’s about having fun and letting go. You don’t need to overthink it, or so everyone will tell you repeatedly.
1 in 5 students admit they could not survive a semester without drinking.
Of course, it’s not that fun when alcohol becomes more of an issue. The automatic reflex of turning to alcohol to solve a myriad of problems often lasts long past the first week. In a survey conducted by the website studentbeans.com, one in five students admitted they could not survive a semester without drinking, and the real number is likely to be much higher. Sophie, a second-year student, said: “Everyone drinks at uni – it’s just what you do, even if you’re not going on a night out. I think a lot of people see it as a way to relax and get away from stress.”
This was an opinion shared by almost all the other students I spoke to – drinking alcohol is normalized to the point where teetotalism is notable. Forgetting about your problems for a few hours is an almost irresistible prospect when you’re stressed. And the quicker this transition can take place, the better, which would explain the explosion in popularity of shots and ‘five-pound rounds’. This would explain why 60 per cent of young people admit to drinking alcohol purely to get drunk. Not to chill out at the pub with their mates, not to make them feel classy having wine at a restaurant, but rather to distract from the tougher side of student life. Alcohol can instantly change your mood to make you feel better, in a way that eating healthily and sleeping well just can’t. Fun at the time, of course, but not sustainable or healthy.
Regardless of the emotional impact alcohol dependence can have, the physical negative effects are damning. It’s too easy to think of yourself as indestructible when you’re young, and we’re all guilty of associating the health problems linked with overconsumption of alcohol more with older people than with ourselves. But it’s dangerous to take our health for granted. Not only can liver problems strike at any age, but it has been shown that binge-drinking can have a long-term negative impact on the brain during development, thereby hindering educational achievement. Danny, a third-year student, noticed the impact alcohol was having on his health. “I put a lot of weight on over the course of my first year thanks to all the drinking,” he said. “Obviously there’s loads of calories in alcohol, which you don’t really realise at first. I wish someone had warned me about that.”
Numbers on a page feel far away from the reality of alcohol dependence, and it can be difficult for someone to recognise the issues in their own life thanks to the universal conviction that ‘it doesn’t apply to me’.
But drinking heavily can lead to worse things than putting on weight, and a heavy night out can have unintended and even dangerous consequences – three-quarters of 18 to 24-year-olds have regretted something they’ve done when drunk and more than a quarter have woken up the next morning not remembering how they got home. Drinking heavily can have a serious impact on your first year university experience – it can affect your burgeoning friendships and the next-morning embarrassment can increase the sense of isolation well-known to many freshers. More worryingly, it can lead to accidentally putting yourself in dangerous situations – people are more likely to take risks or act aggressively when drunk – and alcohol is a factor in 50 per cent of all violent incidents. The lowered inhibitions often seen as a benefit of drinking alcohol can often have consequences reaching further than just the next morning.
Despite all the scary statistics, the fact is that the vast majority of students will navigate the drinking culture at university in a relatively unproblematic manner. Many students do drink safely and responsibly and, if anything, university is a better environment to find your limits and make mistakes than the world of work, where a few too many hungover mornings could impact on your ability to do your job and result in you losing your employment. Why not take advantage of the opportunities to have fun afforded at university while you still have them? It’s a chance that’s unlikely to come again.
However, the question remains as to what should be done for the minority – the students who fall prey to the sinister side of the university drinking culture, who drink too much and too often, who rely on alcohol to help them deal with stress or anxiety. The negative effects of alcohol are well-known, and it’s unlikely that the statistics in this article will be particularly surprising to many people. But numbers on a page feel far away from the reality of alcohol dependence, and it can be difficult for someone to recognise the issues in their own life thanks to the universal conviction that ‘it doesn’t apply to me’.
So what can be done to balance out the murky underbelly of the university drinking culture? One strategy that comes up in the newspapers every year is making sober events more a part of student life. Student unions are often judged on the quality of the club nightlife they can offer, but many say it’s important to balance this out with initiatives, both during the day and at night, that don’t involve alcohol, so that students who would prefer to abstain from drinking don’t feel like they’re missing out on the ‘student experience’. Reena Staves, Welfare Officer-Elect of the Students’ Union, said the union has a role to play in protecting students. “It’s incredibly important that our SU continues to support students by raising awareness of the dangers of alcohol and the ways in which students can ensure they are able to have a good, safe night out.”
“Everyone drinks at uni – it’s just what you do, even if you’re not going on a night out. I think a lot of people see it as a way to relax and get away from stress.”
On a more individual level, students who find the university drinking culture difficult, whether because they don’t want to participate or find themselves inadvertently participating to excess, can find valuable help and counselling through the Students’ Union. But many don’t know that kind of support exists, or might be too embarrassed to access it, preferring instead to deal with it themselves. It’s not just ‘something everyone does’ or ‘something that happens to everyone’ if it’s starting to impact on your well-being and it could help struggling students to feel less isolated if they knew it wasn’t a problem unique to them. Having more freedom and fewer responsibilities at university is undeniably an advantage in regard to experimentation with alcohol – but students need to be aware of the dangers surrounded university drinking culture, and the support available to them.