Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

The truth behind substance use disorders and drinking in college

Patrick Higgins

Posted on March 21, 2016 in News
By Krysteana Scribner

For college students, the consumption of alcohol varies from person to person. Whether you’re drinking to socialize, celebrate, suppress difficult emotions or to simply relax, it has both a strong and varying affect on those who decide to drink. Why does alcohol cause us to act and feel differently? How much is too much? Why do some people become addicted and not others?

While drinking alcohol in appropriate amounts won’t put you at a high risk for long-term damage, consuming the beverage often and/or in large quantities can put you at risk. According to the Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), drinking at college has become a ritual that students often see as an integral part of their higher education experience.

They estimate that each year in the U.S., and average 1,825 college students between the ages 18-24 die from alcohol related injuries, 696,000 students are assaulted by another student who was drinking and over 97,000 students reported experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

According to the NIAAA, alcohol not broken down by the liver goes to the rest of the body, including the brain. It can affect parts of the brain that are in control of movement, speech, judgement and memory. In turn, the effects lead to clear signs of drunkenness: Difficulty walking, slurred speech, memory lapses and acting on impulsive behavior.

Consequences of Drinking in College:

According to the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, brain development continues well into a person’s twenties and excessive drinking at a young age can hinder this process. Those who consume alcohol irresponsibly encounter struggle in academics, memory loss, sleep deprivation and a number of medical conditions that develop the longer you consume, such as Anemia, Cardiovascular Disease, Depression, Liver Disease, Pancreatitis and more.

Coordinator of Learning Support at USM, Paul Dexter, is in charge of building partnerships with academic departments across the institution to identify ways to help students succeed. H explained that with heavy drinking, comes lack of sleep, and with that comes the inability to function as well as those who do not drink.

“Many people believe [alcohol] helps you sleep because of the initial depressive affect, but with enough consumption it actually reduces the amount of REM sleep (or deep cycles of sleep) one gets.,” he stated. “These REM sleep cycles are required to feel well rested and this is the time when information you took in during the day is solidified in your memory. The less REM sleep we get, the less effective ingraining of information happens during sleep.”

Although USM does not currently have data to know which students are engaging in high risk alcohol and drugs, Dexter explained that staff members are educated on what high risk use looks like and what they can do to help students succeed. These signs, he explained, vary from student to student, but one of the most important symptoms presents itself in a change of brain chemistry.

“If a person continues to use in a high risk way, then you see changes in brain chemistry, and that’s when tolerance goes up,” he stated. “It’s going to take more to get the desired effect. From an academic standpoint, one of the challenges when someone continues to use in a high risk way overtime is that he/she is affecting the brain’s ability to modulate stress.”

According to the NIAAA, 1 in 4 college students report academic consequences from drinking, including missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall. Dexter stated that it is important to understand with drinking, little stressors on the brain become more problematic and harder to control.

“Not every student who drinks develops an addiction. If any student finds themselves making changes related to their substance use, there are many support services here at USM,” stated Dexter. “No one has to feel ashamed by their drinking habits. No has to go through a substance use disorder alone.”

Student Recovery Liaison Ross Hicks, who works closely with administration to ensure changes are made to accommodate students seeking recovery, explained that a lot of people think substance use disorder means you’re morally weak or don’t have the willpower.

“It is a medical condition and there is a treatment,” said Hicks. “If we address it as so, we can frame the conversation in a way that will hopefully lead to better access to treatment and for those of us that have been able to accumulate some measure of sobriety, whether it’s days or years, we tend to identify ourselves as long-term recoverers.”

Dispelling the stigma around substance use disorders:

Diane Geyer, the coordinator of clinical substance use services, is dualy licensed in mental health and substance use and works closely with students on campus who may struggling with the disorder. She explained that there are a variety of reasons why students drink, but a lot of cases are centered around the desire to fit in and make friends.

“Having a sense of wanting to belong is a big reason it happens. These students want to belong, they want to fit in – and, as most students would agree, taking risks can seem fun,” Geyer stated. “It’s important to understand that we all can have a substance use problem. Everybody is at risk, but some people are more susceptible.”

She further explained that there are two types of risks: low risk choice and high risk choice. For students who integrate drinking into their social lives, it’s important to recognize that it is okay to do so, as long as the consumer is being responsible and knows when to stop. When a student finds themselves at a crossroads of uncertainty regarding their drinking habits, Geyer stated there are many resources for students on campus to take advantage of.

When individuals are part of a social group that encourages the high risk use of alcohol or other substances, it can often be difficult for an individual to see their use as a problem,” she said. “The stigma associated with having an alcohol or substance use problem can sometimes create a barrier for someone who would like support or help.  No one sets out or plans to develop an alcohol or drug problem. Anyone who makes high risk choices is susceptible to developing a substance use disorder.”

For Jake Mitchell, a freshman physics major, his struggle with a substance use disorder began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was unable to escape the grasp of addiction. The chance to recover came along when he decided to start new, move to Maine and attend USM.

“I’m living in a sober house right now, and that’s why I am going to USM. Maine was my only option to stay out of trouble,” he stated. “I was getting into really bad situations in the last city I lived in and this geographical change is just what I needed. I’m happy to say I am 6 months sober.”

Andrew Kiezulas, a senior chemistry major at the USM, has dealt with addiction first hand and has seen how the illness affects the people. He stated that so many kids feel today feel broken and are made to feel as if the struggle with substance use disorder will never end. However, Kiezulas has made it his life’s mission to change that perspective by providing others with his experience of recovery.

“Not many people really understand what substance use disorder looks like,” explained Kiezulas. “So they see you drinking or they see you doing drugs and they say ‘why can’t you just stop?’ You want to shake them and tell them it runs so much deeper than that.”

For Kiezulas, the road to recovery will continue to be one where he grows and learns. He explained that it’s important for people to realize that his illness doesn’t define who he is as a person.

“I may die a person in long term recovery. I may have an active substance use disorder, but I don’t have to be an alcoholic my whole life. I’m in recovery along with many other incredible people,” explained Kiezulas. “The truth is, I like to think I’m strong and impervious to what other people say and think – but it matters. Language holds incredible strength and sway. That’s why a number of us are so passionate about language because it holds a lot of power.”