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As High School seniors who are applying for college and their parents across the country are waiting anxiously to hear back from college admissions offices, they have not yet thought about the many challenges awaiting them once there. Being a parent often means shouldering the worry while feeling incapable of shielding your child from potential temptations and danger they will face on a regular basis. The excitement and anticipation of this next phase of a child’s life is fraught with parental concerns about their exposure to alcohol, drugs, substance abuse and depression. Unfortunately, parents don’t have to search long to find the latest tragic story about a college student whose life was lost due to drugs or alcohol.

On Monday, December 17, 2018, the Travis County Texas Medical Examiner released a report regarding the accidental death of Texas A&M University freshman Joseph Little, who died on August 29, 2018. Joseph, a recent graduate of Houston’s prestigious St. Thomas High School, died of a stroke due to seizures induced by a combination of snorting Adderall and smoking marijuana, according to the autopsy report. Texas A&M subsequently suspended the local chapter of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity (Joseph’s fraternity) following a Student Accountability Board review that found the fraternity had violated a list of student rules, including hazing and various alcohol and drug rules during the weekend prior to his death.

In July 2018, the first of over twenty fraternity brothers charged with being responsible for the death of a Penn State University pledge was sentenced to three months house arrest. Ryan Burke, age 21, plead guilty to four counts of hazing and five alcohol violations for his role in the February 2017 death of Tim Piazza. Piazza died the night he accepted a pledge bid to the Beta Theta Pi house from severe head and abdominal injuries following a long night of drinking and hazing. More than twenty other Beta Theta Pi members are still awaiting trial on charges ranging from hazing and reckless endangerment to involuntary manslaughter.

These are just two tragic examples of the problems associated with excessive drinking and substance abuse in colleges and universities. Other problems include injuries, car accidents, assault, poor scholastic performance and dropping out. According to the National Institute of Health, researchers estimate that each year:

  • Approximately 1,825 college students between ages 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes.
  • Nearly 700,000 students between ages 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
  • Around 97,000 students between ages 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault and date rape.
  • 1 in 4 college students report suffering academic consequences from drinking, such as missing class, poor performance on exams and papers, falling behind in the classroom, and lower grades.
  • In 2016, nearly 5% of college students reported daily marijuana use and nearly 10% reported use of Adderall or other amphetamines in the past year.

The high rates of drug and alcohol abuse among college students have been attributed to many different reasons including, stress, heavy course load, curiosity and peer pressure. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, many college alcohol problems are related to binge drinking, which usually refers to having at least 4-5 drinks in two hours or less. Specific types of college environments also play a role. For instance, students at schools with strong Greek systems and prominent athletic programs drink more than students at other types of schools. Further, alcohol consumption is highest with students living in fraternities and sororities and lowest among commuting students living with their families. Research also indicates that students who don’t drink alcohol or take drugs frequently cite to the fact that their parents discussed alcohol and drug use and abuse with them before setting off to college.

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So, what are some things parents can do for their high school age children to help prevent collegiate substance abuse and binge drinking?

First, start talking with them early and often about these issues. Talk specifically with your child about the dangers associated with underage college drinking and drugging, including the impact it can have on their class work, relationships, personal safety and friends. Remember, however, to talk to them more like an adult by showing them respect and allowing it to be a two-way conversation, not a lecture.

Second, after they make their college choice, make sure your student reads and understands the school’s alcohol and drug policies, particularly the consequences that will result from violating these policies and/or breaking the law. Your student needs to be familiar with these policies long before they set foot on campus.

Third, be prepared to provide regular, ongoing support to your student during the school year, especially during the first six weeks of the fall semester when they are particularly vulnerable. Many college freshmen — away from home for the first time experiencing considerable free time and meeting new people — initiate heavy drinking during these early college days, which can dramatically interfere with successful adaptation to campus life.

Fourth, familiarize yourself with and support the school’s alcohol and drug prevention efforts. For instance, ensure that your student participates in any alcohol or drug education programs offered by their university.

Fifth, make sure your child knows the signs of alcohol and drug problems, including alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses, if they ever need to get help for a friend or classmate. You also need to understand the school’s rules for notifying parents in the event of a problem.

What about the student already in recovery? Is there any way they can attend college while still maintaining a sober lifestyle?

Fortunately, a growing number of sober programs that support college students in recovery are being implemented at colleges and universities throughout the country. According to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, there are 186 substance abuse recovery programs nationwide; up from only 29 in 2013. They include such well known institutions as the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Mississippi, Vanderbilt University, Penn State University and the University of Michigan. These programs offer substance-free housing and drug/alcohol counseling, as well as sober social events like tailgates and trips. Their purpose is to create a community of student peers for both support and accountability, apart from the typical drug and alcohol party culture.

According to Dr. Christopher M. Jones, director of the National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory at the SAMHSA, “Bringing recovery supports onto college campus can be a key part of an individual’s academic success and the success of their overall recovery.” His agency provides federal funding and support for these types of college programs.

One of the largest residential college recovery programs in the country is StepUp Program at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, which serves more than 100 students annually. These students live in a substance-free dorm where they attend weekly counseling and community meetings staffed by experienced addiction and mental health counselors. And there is no additional cost for the student to participate in the StepUp program. According to its website, StepUp’s abstinence rate is 93% and the average StepUp student has a GPA of 3.2 (of 4.0) (www.augsburg.edu/stepup/).

Timothy Piazza Penn State University

Photo of Timothy Piazza, Courtesy NBC News

To change the deeply engrained and self-governing university Greek-life traditions that have led to tragedy, Penn State announced plans for a national multidisciplinary research center on fraternities and sororities, J. Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform. The Center will lead in reforming Greek-life and changing the culture. It will develop a national scorecard on fraternities and sororities, sponsor original research that will inform best practice guidelines they will publish to help other universities. They chose not to throw all of their Greek organizations off campus, which would certainly encourage the organizations to relocate off campus and possibly lead to more tragedies according to the school. Penn State’s President Eric Barron shared “The Piazza Center will provide an essential leadership role to compel the collective change required.” Let’s hope that this will be one of the many collective changes being made to curb substance and alcohol abuse by the next generation of our college students.