After the relative confinement of home and high school, college offers the first sip of freedom—and to many, it tastes a lot like Fireball.
Booze doesn’t exactly drip from the faucets of frat houses and campus-adjacent apartments, but sometimes, it might as well. Alcohol forms the center of many students’ social lives. And binge drinking—usually defined as more than four drinks for women and five for men, within two hours—is far more common in college than most anywhere else. In one recent survey, two-thirds of students admitted to such a bender in the previous month.
In that setting, it isn’t always easy to tell when a friend’s behavior has crossed the line from standard experimentation to something darker. “College drinking has been a problem for a long time, and the norms that are set about what is normal drinking can be skewed,” says Ralph Castro, director of the Office of Alcohol Policy & Education at Stanford University.
Of course, binge drinking and other forms of overconsumption can have serious consequences, from bad grades to accidents and injuries to death. So how can you spot people who are in over their heads—and if you’re worried, what exactly can you do about it?
What are the signs my friend has a drinking problem?
Castro and other experts recommend watching for:
Sheer quantity. The government defines “low-risk” drinking as no more than four alcoholic beverages on any single day or 14 per week for men, and three daily or seven weekly for women. If your buddy’s regularly knocking back the weekly allotment in one day or one weekend, that’s obviously problematic, says clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, executive director of outpatient counseling service Innovation 360 and adjunct instructor for counseling at Southern Methodist University.
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Big changes. A shift from previous habits can also be a red flag for loss of control. Someone who once threw back a few every weekend night but is now partying during the week too, or who begins to pregame alone hours before everyone else meets up, could be headed down a dangerous path.
Inappropriate circumstances. A few beers at a football game or a house party? Probably within the bounds of normal. A few beers at every 10 am study hall or while alone in a dorm room? A little more concerning. When people can’t adjust their consumption based on the setting, it’s cause for alarm, Gilliland says.
Slipping schoolwork. Yes, organic chemistry’s tough. But if your friend’s flunking every class and flaking on tests and assignments due to drinking, that’s more than an academic issue. “You have one job, which is school—that's why you’re there,” Gilliland says. “When your alcohol consumption starts to interfere with you doing your job, bad things tend to happen.”
Unexplained sloppiness. You may see your friend’s health and lifestyle decline in other ways, says licensed drug and alcohol counselor Amy Sedgwick, director of clinical operations at Mountainside Treatment Center in Canaan, Connecticut. He or she may stop eating or sleeping well, withdraw, or skimp on hygiene. Relationships with family, other friends, and significant others may grow tense (you might start overhearing angry phone calls, Gilliland says).
Mixing and matching. The dangers of drinking increase exponentially when you add other substances, especially drugs like opioids or benzodiazepines. Gilliland calls these combos “unbelievably risky and potentially fatal.”
Losing time. Getting black out might not be uncommon in college, but it’s definitely high-risk. Related and alarming: If your buddy doesn’t remember what happened later or behaves radically differently when drunk, such as picking fights when he or she never would sober, Gilliland says.
When should I talk to my friend about their drinking?
How can a caring friend bring up a potential problem? First, know you’re not alone if it seems scary or overwhelming. “I’m a clinical psychologist by training, I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, and I still hate talking with friends I’m really close to that I think may have a problem with drinking,” Gilliland says.
But take heart: Learning to have hard conversations now makes it easier to do so in the future. To increase your odds of getting through:
Clarify your goals. Before you utter a word, adjust your own mindset. You’re not lecturing, preaching, or confronting, you’re merely starting a conversation. Reconcile yourself with the fact that your friend may not want to talk about it, Gilliland says. But even if you get shut down, you may still have planted a seed that encourages someone to seek help later.
Time it right. Choose a moment that’s quiet and you aren’t likely to be interrupted—and by all means, don’t do it while or after you’ve been drinking. “Have this conversation when they are sober so that they are clear-headed and able to truly take in what you are saying,” Sedgwick says.
Focus on changes. “I” statements are a bit of a therapy cliche by this point—that’s because they work to defuse defensive reactions. “Instead of saying, ‘You’re drinking too much, you have a problem, you’re doing this, it’s more like: ‘I’m concerned about what I’m seeing, I’m worried about what happened the other night,” Castro says.
Cite the facts. The more objective evidence you can offer, the better. You drank too much, got behind the wheel, and wrecked your car—your friend can’t argue with that, Gilliland says. You can also bring up the number of drinks considered “normal” or low-risk, a fact that often shocks even people who don’t have an issue with alcohol.
Get reinforcements. Teaming up for an intervention doesn’t usually work in a college setting—for one thing, you’re trying to address problems early rather than after years of substance abuse. If you and another member of your social circle share the same concerns, have two separate chats with the person in question. “Individual conversations collectively have a bigger impact,” Castro says.
Offer resources. Websites like Rethinking Drinking
provide strategies for recognizing a problem, getting help, or cutting back on drinking. (“It isn’t always all or nothing,” Gilliland says.) If your friend expresses a desire to get help, you can assist by providing suggestions, such as an alcohol and drug office like Castro’s on your campus, the counseling center, or a residence director.
Call for backup (in extreme circumstances). The message may take a while to sink in, so allow time before you follow up. But safety should be your top priority—if your friend’s drinking is putting them or others in imminent danger, contact a trusted authority, be it a professor, resident assistant, or campus physician.
If repeated conversations don’t change anything, you can consider reaching out to parents or other family members. “That is obviously a big card to play,” Gilliland says, and probably one you want to pull only if several friend agree it’s the best move. “You may lose that friendship over it, which speaks to the seriousness.” But often, he’s seen, it’s the thing that allows a person who really needs help to get it.
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