Interview: The negative effects of too much alcohol

Drinking and university go together hand in hand like Homer and Marge. Yet hardly anybody talks about the issues surrounding excessive drinking at university. So, what are we actually doing besides setting ourselves up for terrible hangovers and mornings full of regret and missed lectures?

In 2011/12 in England alone there were a whopping 1,220,300 alcohol-related NHS hospital admissions based on primary and secondary diagnoses – and I can say first hand that alcohol abuse in my first year at university left me sitting in the doctor’s office for psychological and physical problems on more than one occasion.

I spoke to Lee Sheriffe, a young person’s alcohol worker based in Sheffield, to understand more about the relationship and effects between alcohol and students.

Apart from a hangover, what effect can binge drinking have on a person’s body?
Binge drinking is defined as drinking double your recommended daily amount of units, which are set at two-three units for a woman and three-four for a man. The physical effects of binge drinking will be weight gain and because alcohol is a diuretic it makes you lose water rapidly so someone might look or feel bloated and present with poor skin and their complexion might change. People may also show psychological signs – they might not go out as much and be more down than usual. It can also affect a person by decreasing their ability to retain information and cause a lack of motivation. It takes one hour to metabolise one unit of alcohol, which is about half a pint, so someone having a ten pint bender is going to take twenty hours to break down their drinks and the psychological effects can last even after the alcohol has left the system.

What are the most common negative effects of too much alcohol?
From my experience I’d say the young people I come across it’s more to do with mental health issues, so things like depression, low self-esteem and lack of motivation that are really more recurring, but that’s not to undermine the importance of the physical health issues. It often leads to poor decision making, for example unprotected sex, blackouts and severe memory loss which in turn can lead to sexual vulnerability. There’s also aggression, misusing other substances and falls that are sometimes fatal.

How many students do you talk to about alcohol abuse?
50% of my case load of people one-on-one is made up of students in full time education. I speak to new students at the fresher’s fair when they start to confront them about what they expect their drinking will be like at university and give them some information about the effects of drinking.

How common is it that alcohol abuse leads to substance abuse?
It’s not a given that someone who drinks a lot will end up using other substances, but I’ve found that alcohol plus cannabis is like an exclusive partnership, but that alcohol doesn’t necessarily lead to the using of cannabis. It’s just that people are more likely to use cannabis having used alcohol; the door is opened wider after a few drinks, just like how some people will smoke cigarettes when they’re drunk but would not do so normally.

Why do you think drinking has become such a common way of ‘having fun?’
It’s a historical way of life in Britain, we’ve always grappled through legislation about how we can restrict people’s alcohol use, but for young people it’s almost been a rite of passage for many years about growing up. We see adults using alcohol and adverts definitely had a huge impact on me wanting to try alcohol and looking forward to using it when I got older. They way alcohol is marketed towards young people has a huge role to play. The cost can’t be ruled out too, alcohol is cheap; vodka has gone down in price hugely over the last couple of years and is a favourite for young people to drink.

Do you think alcohol abuse continues to effect students after university?
Yeah, I’ve worked with student nurses who have gone onto misuse alcohol even after they’ve achieved full time employment. I used to work in adult services and someone’s drinking career often started at university. However, more often than not alcohol has been a problem in their lives before they’ve started uni but it’s just been made more prevalent at university. It’s not as common as you might think though, drinking is just the norm of university life – it’s what you do there – but it can be very difficult to control. Boredom can creep in after university if you can’t find a job but it’s not a given that bad drinking habits will continue after university.  

How would you suggest people take control of alcohol rather than the other way around?
Everybody’s different but one common way that people take control is to build up self-awareness about their drinking and look at what triggers it, perhaps keep a diary of the drinking and look at the times when the drinking is worse. People can then set themselves some clear goals and look at steps to achieve those goals. One of the ways to change alcohol behaviour is to engage with something else, not necessarily to replace alcohol completely but to introduce a new activity or interest, or sometimes even a new social circle.

What is the main thing students should remember about drinking heavily?
Using too much alcohol is going to affect your performance – students need to be aware that it will degrade their performance as alcohol is a depressant and it will slow everything down including your ability to think and perform, be it physically or mentally. There’s always going to be a cost, but it’s also important to remember there’s an upside to using alcohol – it’s not all doom and gloom. It must be recognised that people have a good time using alcohol and you have to look at the upside and then the downsides. You have to respect people’s right to drink but remember that you can’t have your cake and eat it, it must be about getting a balance and often with alcohol it’s very difficult to strike a balance especially if you’re used to using it in an uncontrolled way.

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