Three to four times as many students were sent to the emergency room this quarter for excessive alcohol consumption than last fall quarter, according to Dean of Students in the College Susan Art, prompting University administrators to send an e-mail to the community warning of the dangers of alcohol use last week.
Art said that while fewer than 20 students had been sent to the ER because alcohol had rendered them unresponsive, the small number belies the seriousness of the situation.
“We thought it was worth flagging for everyone because it is so potentially lethal,” Art said.
Art and Kim Goff-Crews, vice president for campus life, cited anecdotal evidence from housing and custodial staff and noted the higher numbers of ER visits.
“That doesn’t mean that all these people are alcoholics. It means they’re drinking too much,” said Dr. Doug Culbert, a psychologist at the SCRS who specializes in counseling students with alcohol. “Acute intoxication can be as dangerous as chronic intoxication.”
The e-mail pointed out the positive role students and staff can play in cases of alcohol abuse, citing the “guidance and support” of community members. In spite of the spike in ER visits due to alcohol poisoning, Art said the University’s alcohol policies encourage responsibility in students. She contrasted University policy with more punitive measures taken by other schools, which she said “make[s] it harder for people to step forward and get help.”
“Our focus is on student health rather than enforcement of the drinking age,” Art said. “I feel that we have a very sensible policy.”
Art said it isn’t clear why there has been such a spike in ER visits due to alcohol poisoning this year, and Culbert said it’s too early in the year to compare the data with the numbers from other schools. But Art said that most of the students who have been sent to the hospital are first-years who didn’t have experience with alcohol use in the past.
“First-years are just away from home and experimenting, and that’s understandable, a certain amount of that needs to go on in college,” Art said.
The amount and severity of alcohol use have surprised Art and she plans to launch more preventative efforts with the Student Counseling and Resource Service (SCRS).
“There are a lot of ways students can learn to drink more safely: tracking their drinking, looking out for their friends,” Culbert said. “There are always ways they can be more safe.”
“We just want to alert people that this can be a very dangerous thing,” Art said.
Goff-Crews plans on bringing alcohol use up at the next meeting of College Council, and hopes that student leaders will make alcohol safety a priority.
Art and Goff-Crews also noted a higher-than-normal number of sexual assault reports in their e-mail, but Art said it’s hard to tell if there’s a connection between the sexual assaults referred to in the e-mail and alcohol abuse.
Students should nevertheless be aware of the role of alcohol use in some cases of sexual assault, Art said. “Alcohol use has a significant role in the things that come to the attention of the sexual assault dean on call. It’s part of the picture. Any case of sexual assault is one too many for us.”
In spite of the recent increase in alcohol hospitalizations, Art said U of C students aren’t as vulnerable to alcohol abuse as those at other schools.
“I’ve always felt that we were lucky in the sense that our students are very serious about being students,” she said. “They don’t want to be hung over and missing class. I don’t feel like we have the same problems that other schools do in terms of the chronic drinking and partying that goes on.”