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Alcohol consumption is an ingrained part of university culture around the world, and where I went to university in England, was quite simply a part of life. It was entirely possible, and popular, to drink after work, at events, dinners, on a night out, when visiting friends, at all hours, and often without moderation.
It is no secret that drinking, in anything from moderate to large amounts over time, has detrimental effects for our heart, liver, and brain health, while also putting us at higher risk of cancers. Yet, according to the National Union of Students, nearly 80 percent of students in the United Kingdom consider drinking and getting drunk as part of university culture. At the same time, “blackout culture” continues to be a part of American universities, where students intentionally drink with the goal of complete oblivion, wiping out memories of the night, passing out, or worse.
What I find most concerning is that many students drink to relieve stress and self-medicate, providing short-term relief for stress and/or sadness. I myself am guilty of doing this, without really realising that alcohol is a depressant, with the ability to interfere with a brain’s neurotransmitters and increasing a person’s risk of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. At the same time, alcohol use often coincides with later nights and fewer hours of sleep, further impinging upon the body’s ability to combat stress, recover from illnesses, and prepare for fast-paced college life. For me, it was only after finding myself with worsening stress-related mental health, resulting in a necessary prescription of antidepressants, that I realised reducing my alcohol consumption was an easy and crucial way for me to improve both my mental and physical health. After being teetotal for some months, I began to feel happier, slept better, and found I had more energy to exercise, and socialise in a meaningful way with the people around me.
In a climate where student mental health is alarmingly poor — and where anywhere between one in five to one in four university students will experience a mental health condition and even more will face high levels of anxiety and loneliness — it is even more important for students to take stock and push back against a culture of excessive drinking in student communities. Even as mindfulness becomes increasingly a part of how individuals deal with work, their living environments, and more, we should also become more conscious about drinking and our relationships with alcohol.
What can we do as individuals to become more mindful of our relationship to alcohol? Here are some of my top tips:
While reducing one’s alcohol intake is usually desirable, it is also often unrealistic or unnecessary to completely teetotal. What is more useful however, is to constantly evaluate how much you drink and why. Do you drink at social events? Alone? To relax? Or to entertain? The United Kingdom’s Chief Medical Officers’ recently revised guidelines can be helpful, suggesting 14 units a week (six pints, or 6 glasses of wine) for both men and women. Setting a number of days a week aside to go drink-free can also be helpful, and slower drinking can help reduce overall intake.
A large portion of student drinking occurs in groups where drinking frequently and/or excessively may be the norm. On the other hand, finding supportive friends who are able to help hold you accountable to your ideal drinking limits can be equally influential. Alternatively, you might even find that more people than you imagine are interested in dry events like movie nights, ice cream runs, or board games nights. The key step is to begin conversations around alcohol use in your social communities, focusing on the positive outcomes like being able to work better or stay engaged with extracurriculars. If you are someone who drinks for stress-relief, consider finding alternative coping mechanisms, such as exercise, music, or films.
Yes, it sounds absurd given the convenience of going cashless, but only bringing a set amount of cash to the pub or on a night out means you not only prevent your spending from going out of hand as the night progresses, and you also only have money for a limited amount of drinks. Sure, you could borrow money from a friend, but that’s one extra step between you and uncontrolled drinking.
Alcoholic drinks are a big part of our societies and cultures. They act as social lubricants, cultural products, and are tasty companions to food and life. However, the negative side effects of long-term and/or excessive consumption cannot be ignored, particularly in universities where mental health issues are already rife. Drinking culture at universities are problematic for many reasons, but its impact on individual student health cannot be ignored. Each student has a choice in their role within this culture however, and I hope more of us will choose to be mindful about our relationship with drinking.
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