For many university students, drinking is a way of life. But the culture of drinking on campus could be masking more serious problems. Kate Hefford reports
An intoxicated woman urges her friend to drink water at Mick E. Fynn’s at quarter to midnight on a Thursday. The pub is crowded with Ryersonians and smells like beer and vinegar. The smell, the strobe lights and the heavy bass combine for a complete sensory overload, encouraging patrons to drink even more.
Two D-bags pump their fists and thrust their hips and some girls stumble around after too many vodka cranberries. One climbs a pool table. “You’re gonna git… you’re gonna git kicked out,” slurs another.
The majority of us started doing it underage. Most likely without consulting the ‘rents, our first time was either in a basement, a poster adorned bedroom or an illegal house party. No one really knows what to expect their first time around, but we surpass that guilt-ridden anxiety for the ultimate goal; pleasure. It’s rebellious, it’s dangerous, it’s binge drinking until your face hits the floor.
So it’s only natural that upon graduating to the post-secondary level, young adults are ready for the bar scene. Those moving into their first apartment start feeling the freedom, while first-year university students jockey for position on beer pong teams.
A 2010 Health Canada survey reported that 72 per cent of youth aged 15 to 24 have drank in the past year. But in the university setting, drinking is seen almost daily.
“I used to stop at the LCBO after class and drink in the Quad,” says Sandra Harrison* of her dazed and confused first-year ways. Now, she is an ambitious third year hospitality and tourism management student at Ryerson, but this comes after failing out of psychology at McMaster University from drinking too much.
When she started at Ryerson, she found herself rushing each assignment the night before it was due, binge drinking regularly and wasting days at a time recuperating. On nights out, her safety was almost always at risk. She’s certain that these habits did “horrible, horrible things” to her body.
According to Health Canada’s drinking guidelines, drinks should be spaced apart by an hour. Women should drink no more than two drinks on most days, men no more than three. In total, these guidelines recommend no more than 10 drinks per week for women and 15 drinks per week for men.
This is based on one drink of 341ml of beer, a cooler, a 5oz glass of wine or a 1.5oz shot of 40 per cent hard alcohol. Anything more is considered to be excessive, unhealthy, and alcohol abuse. By these standards, many university students are guilty of this abuse.
Case in point — Ryerson security is called to the Ram in the Rye at least once a month to deal with drunk patrons refusing to leave, or to eject a large group acting aggressively. However, this does not include instances where Ram security handled an ejection themselves.
Many students joke about being alcoholics, followed by the affirmation that “we’re not alcoholics, we’re just students.” But if you’re one of those pounding back shots of tequila at Tight and Brights, you may want to ask yourself if your drinking habits are really normal.
Students who have trouble with substance abuse can go to the Ryerson Counselling Centre. Here, a doctor will do an assessment of a student’s drinking habits, and then provide treatments. Serious cases can be referred to sources like the Drug and Alcohol Helpline or Alcoholics Anonymous.
Dr. Su-Ting Teo, director of health and wellness at Ryerson, says that “students might not realize they actually have an issue,” at least until they meet with a doctor. She also says binging has more of a physical impact than drinking often but having fewer drinks at a time.
Teo says that the affect of binge drinking is what surprises people the most, “because they think, ‘oh, I’m only drinking like this once a month.’”
Side effects can include irrecoverable harm to one’s liver, the crucial organ that filters unhealthy substances from the blood like, say, booze. Teo says some people can binge drink all through university and come out fine (“if they don’t get alcohol poisoning and die”), but that some students will suffer fairly unexpected consequences.
“Alcohol can actually unmask mental illness, [most commonly] anxiety.” With individuals prone to anxiety, binge drinking can make the illness worse and trigger panic attacks.
“People come in [to the Counselling Centre] not knowing why they have panic attacks. From this one night of drinking they’re living with this panic disorder.”
For Harrison, getting back on track was just a matter of getting those shenanigans out of her system. “I’m over it,” she says. Last year, she started using her grocery money for food instead of booze, pushing for A’s where she used to get D’s.
However, one of the unexpected consequences of reducing your intake can be the loss of the social network it creates.
“I wish I made more friends in my program,” she says, because she spent most of her time drinking with friends at Campus Common. “[But] I don’t miss making an ass of myself.”
Not everybody spent their Saturdays perfecting their flip cup technique in first year. Third- year journalism student Veronica Yao says she used to joke with friends, describing herself as the type who drinks chocolate milk out of a crazy straw at the end of the bar. Drinking, she thought, was reserved for a “claustrophobic room of dancing girls in glitter.”
Unlike many that night, Yao actually remembers the first “Journalism versus Radio and Television Arts” karaoke night she attended.
“Everyone was a little nuts, but I didn’t feel left out,” she recalls. Though she now drinks occasionally, she says that her personality is crazy enough without the sauce.
However, she says that there were benefits to not drinking, like being able to focus on her studies much more closely — and having more money — than those distracted by alcohol. “I don’t like the idea of spending copious amounts on alcohol. I get shoppers guilt.”
First-year journalism student Leah Jensen says that she’s smarter about drinking than she was when she was younger, but between sharing pitchers and cabbing, it does a number on her wallet. “It can come up to about $100 a week.”
Jensen says she’s not aware of any of the resources to help potential alcoholics on campus. But unlike some of her friends, she balances drinking two to three nights a week with school and other priorities. She says she doesn’t always feel obligated to drink, which helps her moderate her intake.
Resident Advisors(RAs) have seen it all before. Stephen Jackson is a second-year performance production student who lives as an RA in Pitman Hall to offer help to new students. He describes residence as a social experiment, combining 17 and 18-year-olds and their favourite poison.
“It’s not ‘come to Ryerson [just] to drink,’” he says, but he feels that drinking in university is considered part of the experience. He doesn’t think these students are alcoholics per se, because drinking is accepted as part of the culture.
“Living in residence, drinking surrounds you. For students who don’t want to be affiliated with it, it’s kind of unavoidable.”
Even if drinking is this ubiquitous, Jensen says nobody considers it a bad thing.
“[Some students] are in denial and don’t want to believe there’s a problem, like routinely having alcohol in everyday situations,” she says. “We don’t identify it as a problem. Most don’t take [it] seriously.”
Many of these students are binge drinkers, Teo says. This means to drink four or more beverages in one sitting. Alcohol consumption becomes a problem when it starts affecting your life — like damaging relationships, school performance, or one’s ability to think clearly. However, even if your drinking hasn’t begun to affect your everyday life, you can still be doing damage to your health.
Though a number of students seek help, Teo doesn’t think there’s been much education about it, and the culture of drinking doesn’t help.
“There’s the expectation: this is what you do when you go to university,” she says, “There’s less of a recognition that there can be serious consequences.”
*Name has been changed.