Recognizing binge drinking and alcoholism in college

Illustration of person drinking alcohol
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

When I found myself standing in the middle of a Halloweekend party, Solo cup in hand, shoes sticking to the hardwood floor, it was Nov. 1. The fact that it was actually a day after Halloween seemed to matter little. That evening, I danced with other students to bass-heavy music under purple strobe lights. And, of course, I had a drink — but didn’t everyone? Did everyone? 

As I felt the spray of a warm, shotgunned beer on my back for the third time and watched my peers drink themselves sick in the name of celebration, I wondered to what extent Halloweekend excess was normal. How many people here had an actual problem with alcohol that went unaddressed because of college drinking culture? 

In movies, Greek life is perceived as a hub for drinking culture, but the campus Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council are both “dry” organizations. Drinking culture, however, is still present within campus cultures as part of the stereotypical college experience. A member of a sorority, who requested to remain anonymous because of her involvement with Greek life, has used alcohol to make herself comfortable with things she would not normally do, such as hooking up with people.

“I talked to (my friend) about it, and she said ‘Oh, that’s what everyone does,’ and I was like, ‘Uh, no, it shouldn’t be,’ ” she said. “When people are getting blacked every weekend, it’s so scary. There’s a really big range (of awareness).” 

The anonymous source said she met people who seemed unaware of the magnitude of their alcohol issues because of their environment.

Lorenzo Leggio, clinical investigator for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, confirmed it would likely be hard for someone seeking help with alcohol on a college campus because drinking is acceptable, which can allow students who struggle with alcohol disorders to blend in.

“This is a population definitely at risk. … people may be more prone to develop alcohol problems, and it may be harder for them to seek help,” Leggio said. “There is alcohol everywhere (and) recovery may be harder.” 

The anonymous source noted that the prominent culture of toxic masculinity reinforced drinking at parties, pregames and similar events. She said, generally, men who can drink more are perceived as more masculine, which leads to unhealthy levels of drinking to see “how much you can take.” 

Leggio said a problem with alcohol can begin when your focus moves from having fun to getting drunk.

“When we talk about social drinking, we imply casual alcohol consumption (and) the focus is not really getting intoxicated,” Leggio explained. “By contrast … we talk about alcoholism as a disorder. … (when) alcohol takes an increasing importance in (someone’s) life.” 

Some of the many indicators of an alcohol issue include wanting to cut down your drinking but being unable to, getting into potentially dangerous situations during or post-drinking, or even giving up or cutting back on other activities in order to drink. 

When these signs are present, it is important to reach out for help. The source said she was sure there were programs students could use to combat alcoholism but thought it would be difficult for people in very social circles to recover from an issue. 

“I just don’t know of anyone who goes to get help for a drinking problem,” the source said. “I don’t see how someone could recover from alcoholism in this community.” 

Robin Walley, a licensed clinical social worker and lead alcohol and other drug counselor at the Tang Center, said the school offers harm reduction care for students who want to “fine-tune” their substance use. 

“We do serve the range of needs and goals with alcohol use, from abstinence to making smaller adjustments to use,” Walley said in an email. “Also, we connect students to student-led communities on campus.” There are also groups outside of UC Berkeley, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which serve those looking to get completely sober.

Drinking in college has become a way of life for some students who don’t realize the lasting effects drinking will have on their health and lives. The misuse of alcohol within campus culture should be addressed within our own communities, as well as at UC Berkeley as a whole.

Contact Sebastian Cahill at [email protected].