Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Challenging the Peer Pressures Culture around Alcohol in University

Emily shares her experience about the struggles to fit in with the drinking culture at University and how she hopes the culture of peer pressure drinking can change.
- Emily

Being able to say no and stay true to my own values is something I have always taken pride in. However, once I started at university, feelings of shame regarding my personal alcohol choices quickly took over.

The focus on alcohol during Freshers’ Week… 
The idea of getting to meet new people and hang out with my new flatmates was such an exciting thought to me. However, when looking at what was on offer during Freshers’ Week, I quickly realised that the majority of events hosted by societies and clubs were centred around drinking. I felt so anxious turning up to events and was quickly put off saying ‘yes’ to new social opportunities and groups gathering, scared that those activities would be predominantly alcohol-based.

Feeling ashamed that I hadn’t drunk much before coming to uni…
In spite of its popularity, pre-drinking was a totally new concept to me. While everyone else seemed as though they knew exactly what they were doing, I never knew what to bring with me or when to turn up and felt too embarrassed to admit this to others. So many of my friends seemed to already know their limits and I was still figuring out which alcohol I could tolerate the taste of! Eager to make a good first impression, I buried my embarrassment and reluctance. My biggest fear was that people wouldn’t include me as part of their social group because I didn’t enjoy the drinking culture most students lived for.

Always having to give a reason for not drinking… 
A major issue I encountered when choosing not to drink was having to justify my decision at every occasion. I felt as though I had to come up with elaborate excuses, rather than being able to drink and enjoy myself. Telling people I had to get up early the next morning, so wouldn’t drink that night, even when this was far from the truth. This kind of falsehood induced feelings of embarrassment and guilt. Although I tried not to care too much about what others thought of my decisions, this wasn’t an easy feat! Even when I chose to drink, there was still that lingering pressure of having to reach a certain level of drunkenness in order for it to be classed as a ‘good night’. I would have much rather stopped at a level where I was still able to enjoy myself, however, I was constantly pressurised to think that this wasn’t the ‘normal’ way to behave as a student.

Feeling isolated…
On nights when I decided not to go out and drink, I felt as though I was confined to the boundaries of my room. On one hand, staying in helped to avoid awkward conversations about why I didn’t want to go out to drink, like everyone else was doing. On the other hand, staying in out of fear of looking ‘uncool’ made me feel isolated and alone at times, when all I really wanted was to be surrounded by supportive friends.

My experiences with alcohol at University today… 
Now that I have a number of secure friendships, I feel as though I am completely content to drink when I like, but also not drink at other times, without having to feel ashamed or ridiculed by those around me. I am now able to happily join in with social events that are alcohol-based and still stay true to myself, rather than having to miss out due to the worries of not conforming to the student drinking stereotype.

Eliminating the peer pressure culture around alcohol… 
Despite now being in this comfortable position, I wish I hadn’t had to go through those feelings of guilt and embarrassment, just because I was following what I was comfortable with, during my First Year. I feel as though more could be done in order to eliminate the stigma around drinking at University, especially during people’s First Year. I know countless people who have been reluctant to join sports teams, too fearful of being pressured into drinking – which is a real shame! Treating people the same, regardless of whether they choose to drink alcohol or not, will hopefully be a step towards changing the University drinking culture. 

For more information on finding support, click here. Find out more about managing alcohol at university on page 32 of Student Minds' Transition guide

I am a Second Year Psychology student, who is passionate about the promotion of positive mental health and am keen to be able to make a positive impact on people who are experiencing mental health difficulties. I think being able to share my own personal experiences through a platform like Student Minds, allows others to realise they are not alone - which is so important to me.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Hangover Habits from the Bubble of University

Ross writes about the mentally unhealthy drinking culture at university and how it can cause problems after graduation. 
- Ross Carver-Carter

In allowing problematic drinking behaviours to go unchallenged at university, we do a disservice to young adults. 

University is in many respects a bubble with its own established norms, culture and structure; something I have clearly seen in that we are so drastically expected to undo many of our student habits upon graduating. In particular, student drinking - at least in my experience - is largely normalised in a student environment and tolerated by those outside of it as a natural, if not desirable, part of the higher education experience. At times, however, it can seem as though no amount of drinking is ever labelled ‘problematic’ when it occurs in the student landscape. 

Drinking at university is often justified as being merely part and parcel of sport’s societies or harmless respite from the stresses of study. For many I imagine it will remain harmless and entirely in their control, but my concern is that these norms can create a dangerous environment where unhealthy drinking habits are formed without being questioned. From my own experience at university, there are regularly events involving alcohol, and often many are willing to get involved once prompted. It’s easy for students to deceive themselves about their own drinking habits in this environment, and to believe it is the social events that lead them to drink and not that they need drink to feel comfortable socialising. Those that want to go out often are laughed off as ‘keen’, but are never thought of as having a dependency or a problem which could be a cause or effect of mental health difficulties. 

In short, it is easy for unhealthy drinking habits to go under the radar whilst in full time higher education, or to blend in with the pervasive wider drinking cultures that thrive. These behaviours only seem to become a concern if they continue after one leaves university and goes into employment. This arises out of a tacit acceptance among many students that for three years you will perhaps drink or smoke excessively without consequence, but that it will not extend beyond your university days. This may sound reasonable enough, but it doesn’t always translate so neatly in reality. Subtle habits, such as drinking to cope with deadline stresses, can ingrain themselves into student behaviours and carry over beyond university into the workplace. Furthermore, students who suffer with mental health issues are at a higher risk for problem drinking, and may turn to alcohol to self-medicate. These behaviour patterns, once established, risk becoming long-term problems. I have known some individuals, once they have started working, to normalise drinking alcohol after work during the week, alone. They drank as a student, so why not now? Though the behaviour hasn’t changed, the perception of it has; It can sometimes take the ‘real world’ to shine a light on problem drinking. 

This attitude is all muddled up; both students and universities should halt these unhealthy drinking habits in the process of developing, instead of intervening once they are well established. This could start by challenging the idea that university is an opportunity for regular binge drinking without responsibilities or consequences. In summary, this is a call to be more aware of problem drinking amongst our peers, especially if we witness a pattern of drinking to cope with stress or anxiety. Offer a listening ear and share alternative ways of coping or socialising. University is unique and will differ from life afterwards, but it should never be allowed to become a breeding ground for alcohol dependency. 

For information on finding support with alcohol misuse, visit pg. 32 of Student Minds' Transitions guide

I am a Politics and IR graduate navigating the graduate world, one step at a time. You can find my thoughts- big and small at