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Universities weaning alcohol from welcome weeks as COVID threat persists

For many schools, preventing possible infections means mitigating a perfect storm of conditions for binge drinking.

BY MARK CARDWELL | SEP 14 2021

You would think Stine Linden-Andersen would be feeling nervous these days, as a clinical psychologist who specializes in high-risk behaviours and dean of student affairs at a small Quebec school with a reputation for partying. Not one but two cohorts of exuberant undergraduate students have arrived on the campus of Bishop’s University for the first time, amid fears of a fourth wave of coronavirus infections.

But with orientation in full swing last week and homecoming weekend set for later this month, she was confident that stringent public health measures and increased student awareness about the dangers of excessive drinking would help ensure a safe transition to university life this fall.

“We’ve seen a real culture change here in the last five years,” said Dr. Linden-Andersen. “It’s primarily student-driven, a way to pass on the torch to each other.”

In addition to following strict provincial COVID-19 guidelines, such as requiring vaccine passports to attend activities, first-year Bishop’s students had to attend a “consent talk” during orientation this year in order to attend the school’s big week-ending concert.

Alcohol was also absent from other welcome-week events, all of which were being held on the school’s picturesque campus in Lennoxville, QC. Events where alcohol is being served – including two small student BYOB gatherings (a first at Bishop’s) – also feature “safety tents” where students can get water, snacks, hand sanitizer and public health information. Also, safety patrols comprised of students trained to assist overly intoxicated people in distress roamed the streets on and off campus from Thursday through Saturday nights, as they do each week throughout the school year.

“These actions help to reinforce the notion to party safe,” said Dr. Linden-Andersen. “Students are getting smarter about this and are teaching others.”

Fighting the stereotype

As students return to campuses across Canada after a nearly two-year hiatus from in-person learning, many universities are redoubling efforts to enforce public health regulations aimed at preventing COVID-19 infections, and to help mitigate what experts say is a perfect storm of conditions for binge drinking and other high-risk behaviour among students.

“Young adults who like to drink either increased their consumption during the pandemic to deal with stress, or decreased it due to fewer social gatherings,” said Bryce Barker. He’s a knowledge broker with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction and the Postsecondary Education Partnership — Alcohol Harms (or PEP-AH), a network of 41 universities and colleges as well as Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs), that works to develop best practices aimed at watering down the detrimental impacts of student culture around alcohol. “Either way, both groups will potentially drink more this fall.”

According to Dr. Barker, movies and other popular media have long portrayed excessive alcohol consumption as a stereotypical part of the North American university experience, while downplaying the negative impacts.

“Students say they feel drinking is expected of them [and] see it as a way to improve their social interactions,” said Dr. Barker. He added that even cases of extreme drunkenness resulting in vomiting, blackouts and trips to the hospital are “given a positive spin as a bonding experience.”

Dr. Barker said the drinking patterns of all young adults tend to be higher-risk at large social gatherings and ritualized annual events such as frosh week, homecoming, Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day.

“Those dates tend to be focal points with exclamation marks on students’ social calendars,” said Dr. Barker. He added that local pubs, restaurants and beer and spirit manufacturers encourage consumption through ads on social media. “They all stand to gain from increased student drinking patterns – and they lean heavily into it.”

For Leo Erlikhman, a Queen’s University graduate and PEP-AH board member, university freshmen are particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. “Many are living away from home for the first time and are meeting new people in a place where exploration and experimentation are encouraged and expected,” he said. “But many don’t know what will happen if and when they put large amounts of alcohol in their bodies.”

Mr. Erlikhman pointed to the results of a recent study he conducted on alcohol-related admissions of people aged 12 to 24 at Kingston General Hospital to show the prevalence of harm caused by excessive drinking at large school events. Of the nearly 2,500 admissions to the hospital for alcohol-related disintoxication, injuries and mental health issues, most involved students and coincided with major events on the social calendar at Queen’s.

He said other research has reached similar conclusions about the timing and effects of excessive drinking. A 2019 study at the Université de Sherbrooke, for example, found the rate of young adults being admitted to hospital jumped fourfold around major social events on campus.

Delta variant meets Delta House

Recent headlines suggest some students are openly flouting university and public health guidelines regarding both COVID-19 and alcohol consumption as campuses reopen. In an email to students on Sept. 2, a day after a raucous 4,000-person street party in Kingston, Ont., that violated the Reopening Ontario Act, Queen’s University Principal Patrick Deane said the school will work with its many town-and-gown partners to address the problem and punish offenders. “It would be a travesty if we could not get back to what we have all been waiting for so very long,” wrote Dr. Deane. “Universities are for learning.”

The University of British Columbia is also taking a hard line against students involved with off-campus parties. School spokesperson Matthew Ramsey said those gatherings are undermining the many measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, including proof of vaccination, mandatory testing for the unvaccinated and a scaling down of events for both orientation week and homecoming.

Across the Strait of Georgia, a top official at the University of Victoria criticized hundreds of students for attending an outdoor party on campus on Sept. 6. Jim Dunsdon, associate vice-president of student affairs, issued a statement asking those involved “to stop behaving in a manner that puts our fall return to campus at risk.”

In Halifax, officials and students at Saint Mary’s University are continuing their efforts to make orientation and homecoming more inclusive and less focused on alcohol and late-night partying.

“Like in the larger world, times and culture have changed on campus,” said Lyndsay Anderson, assistant director of student culture and experience and a former manager of student conduct at nearby Dalhousie University.

Both schools, she said, have evolved away from excessive partying. “The focus of frosh week – a term we are deliberately not using anymore – used to be on a social whirlwind of concerts and parties with really intense, long days and lots of alcohol,” said Ms. Anderson. “Now the focus is on inclusive, welcoming activities that help students get familiar with campus and find out where the supports are.

“We want students to socialize – just not in big parties. We have more small icebreakers that put the emphasis and value on having fun and making friends in safe and inclusive ways.”

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