• Vt. colleges target student alcohol abuse
     | October 10,2013
    Albert J. Marro / Staff Photo

    Representatives from Vermont colleges and state agencies gathered Wednesday at Castleton State College for a symposium on high-risk drinking among students.

    CASTLETON — To reduce binge drinking and the myriad problems associated with it, college students need to talk with each other and with their parents.

    That was the message Wednesday as officials from Vermont colleges met at Castleton State College for a symposium to address high-risk drinking.

    It was the second such symposium in two years, said Barbara Cimaglio, deputy commissioner for alcohol and drug abuse programs with the state Department of Health, which hosted the events.

    “Last year, we brought in outside experts to discuss alcohol abuse and prevention,” she said. “This year, it’s an opportunity to share ideas with each other and discuss what is working and what isn’t.”

    Officials bringing their ideas to the conversation came from Castleton State, Johnson State, Marlboro College, Middlebury College, St. Michael’s College and the University of Vermont.

    The statistics surrounding college drinking would likely horrify the parents of a student.

    According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — which is part of the National Institutes of Health — an estimated 599,000 students 18 to 24 years old at U.S. colleges are unintentionally injured every year while under the influence of alcohol.

    Each year, an estimated 97,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault, and 696,000 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.

    Mary Masson, director of student health services at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, discussed her school’s Student Support Network, which was launched in 2012 and includes weekly one-hour sessions for students to discuss mental health issues, and drug and alcohol abuse.

    “I think issues dealing with student life are a lot different than they were 15 years ago,” Masson said, noting more students are arriving on campus with pre-existing mental health or substance abuse issues.

    An audience member asked whether poor mental health leads to substance abuse — or if it’s the other way around.

    Masson replied, “It’s the ‘chicken or the egg’ thing. We see substance abuse as a coping mechanism, but it’s equally possible some people are predisposed to alcohol or drug abuse.”

    Every fall semester for the past six years, Marlboro College has offered a one-credit class called WHIP (Wellness and Health-Informed Peers) that gives students the chance to talk about alcohol abuse and related issues — from mental health to sexually transmitted diseases — with each other and with outside experts, such as clinicians from the Brattleboro Retreat.

    According to the NIAAA, every year an estimated 400,000 college students have unprotected sex, while more than 100,000 report having been too intoxicated to know if they consented to sex.

    While it’s good to have students support each other, speakers said, it’s important for parents to remain in the loop after their children go off to school, especially during the first six weeks when many habits — both good and bad — are formed.

    Officials at Johnson State College encourage parental engagement by sending a letter home to the parent of a student who has been adjudicated on a drug or alcohol violation. Before the letter goes out, students are encouraged to talk with their parents first.

    Michele Whitmore, associate dean of students at Johnson, said students were initially cool to the idea, “but over time, they’ve come to embrace the opportunity to have that conversation with their parents.”

    At UVM, officials work to prevent alcohol abuse by sending out emails to parents letting them know about upcoming weekends when binge drinking is more likely to occur and by suggesting alcohol-free events.

    According to UVM, surveys show the emails prompted 87 percent of parents to talk with their children about drinking.

    “It doesn’t have to be part of the college experience,” Whitmore said of binge drinking. “It doesn’t have to be a rite of passage.”


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