Regional Colleges Continue to Tackle Binge Drinking

Concord — The University of New Hampshire is working on multiple fronts — including the griddle — to reduce binge drinking.

Before last fall’s Homecoming football game, health officials set up a griddle near a popular tailgating spot and served free bacon, eggs and pancakes to hundreds of students, many of whom had partied hard the night before, slept in their cars outside the field and planned to drink more before the game. The breakfast was designed as a low-key intervention to get students thinking about the dangers of overconsumption, said Melissa Garvey, a counselor and educator with the UNH Office of Health Education and Promotion.

“We definitely were treading lightly with our presence,” she said. “As they came to the table, it was an opportunity to say, ‘We want to make sure you’re taking good care of yourself today, and one of the easiest interventions is to make sure you have food in your stomach and making sure you stay hydrated.’ ”

The university is one of 32 members of the National College Health Improvement Project that Dartmouth College created two years ago. The goal was to help participants scientifically measure their progress in reducing binge drinking and then spread their strategies to other campuses. So far, participants appear pleased with the results.

“It’s been a really great source of collaborative learning and resources,” said Annie Stevens, associate vice president for student and campus life at the University of Vermont. “It really does give you a chance to get out of your own bubble and look around and rely on your colleagues. We’re all struggling with the same thing and saying, ‘Hey, have you found anything you’re doing that seems to work?’ ”

An estimated 40 percent of college students engage in binge drinking — defined as consuming five alcoholic drinks in two hours for men and four drinks in two hours for women. Nearly 2,000 college students in the United States die each year from alcohol-related injuries, and an estimated 600,000 are injured, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The national project promotes a model that boils down to this: pilot something small, see if it works, tweak it if necessary and then scale it up. With that in mind, UVM has started several programs, including sending emails to parents before big party weekends or events urging them to touch base with their children about high-risk drinking. The university also is working with police to pinpoint troublesome properties off-campus. Every Monday morning, police supply a list of student houses they were called to over the weekend, and the university creates a map that helps it recognize trends over time.

“So instead of police going back and being called to that house several times, our staff can go and knock on doors and have a better conversation with students about, ‘Really? Do you want police showing up?” or ‘What’s happening on this street or in this neighborhood?’ ” Stevens said.

Students also are being asked about alcohol use any time they go to the campus health clinic for any reason, from a sore throat to a sprained ankle. If their answers raise red flags, a physician steps in, Stevens said. That kind of screening also is in place at Dartmouth, along with another program developed at the University of Washington called BASICS — Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students.

Students who are involved in alcohol incidents are required to participate in the program, which includes counseling and online self-assessments to help them examine their drinking behavior. While many of the initial participants reported cutting their alcohol consumption by almost half after taking part, an open invitation to other students didn’t get many takers, said Aurora Matzkin, director of the Dartmouth College Health Improvement Project.

“BASICS is not a field of dreams. If you build it, they won’t come,” Matzkin said. “Students rarely self-refer.”

The college then tried expanding the program to student athletes. That, too, took some tweaking, and what finally worked was hiring a recent graduate and hockey player to coordinate BASICS counseling sessions during team meetings. Students were much more receptive when a “near peer” got involved, Matzkin said.

Matzkin, who also is the liaison between Dartmouth and the national project, said as with any new technology, some schools have been more willing than others to adopt new approaches. And while schools have been able to measure the outcomes of their programs individually, comparing statistics across campuses has been a challenge, she said.

“Every single school had slightly different processes, procedures and definitions, so it’s very, very hard to aggregate data, if not impossible,” she said. “It’s a lot of different kinds of fruit in the mix. It’s not just apples and oranges. It’s like apples, oranges, kiwis and watermelons.”

The next step happens in June, when other schools interested in joining the project will attend an informational session and hear from current participants.

“For Dartmouth, it’s been transformative,” Matzkin said. “We went from having one alcohol and other drug coordinator who did most of the work on alcohol at Dartmouth, to having a team of 17 that are across the college. So this is no longer the effort of one man; it’s the effort of a big team.”