Friday 10 May 2024

The Student Lifestyle: Drinking Culture

Callum shares his experience with drinking culture at university and student financial hardship

Callum - Centre for Mental Health

As a student, like many students before me, I have been known to drink. Heavily.

At universities, there is a pervasive drink and drug culture. To many students, drinking feels like an essential activity. In my own experience, alcohol consumption was tagged onto nearly every enterprise. I couldn’t play mini golf, go to the cinema, or even attend lectures, without alcohol somehow featuring. I would drink on a weeknight, and then skip my morning lectures. I would fend off my hangover, and miss most of the day, before repeating the process that night.

Drinking did more than hurt me physically. When drinking heavily, I would lose all connection with the people around me. I would only see my friends when drinking. I couldn’t talk to them; catch up with them; share my life with them. I became a caricature of myself, just as they were of themselves. It was incredibly isolating.

This is combined with the toxic ‘student bubble’: a bidirectional exclusionary relationship, between students and the wider city. It results in the segregation of students – however unintentional - from the broader community. Exacerbated by the extreme drinking culture of student life, the student bubble can be impenetrable to the community at-large.

Problem drinking is not the fault of students – at least, not in its entirety. Alcohol is highly available, and is a lot easier to access than mental health support. Disordered alcohol consumption is linked to trauma and mental ill health. Often, people use alcohol to self-medicate.

Alcohol licensing laws are fairly lax in England, and this is especially true for off-license stores. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we see a relative abundance of these stores in the most deprived areas of the country – areas where many students are living. To resolve these issues, in my opinion, stricter regulation of alcohol should be implemented. One method to achieve this is to implement a minimum unit pricing, whereby alcohol cost cannot sink below a certain price per unit. Another is to enforce stricter licensing laws across England, and to tax alcohol sales more highly. By out-pricing high-strength alcohol, I believe drinkers will be left with safer choices.

Moreover, community groups should be supported and incentivised to include students in their programmes. This could also be true for societies affiliated with the student’s union. In my experience, this community cohesion could do much to reduce the relative isolation and harms associated with the student bubble. This may also help to reduce drinking in student populations.

I realise that, in recent years, things have gotten much worse. As a PhD student, I now receive a stipend and have a meagre safety net beneath me. Despite this, I still find myself in financial hardship on a semi-regular basis. It makes me wonder what life must be like for some undergraduate students. In a housing market akin to the one I lived in - just more extreme and unfair - their loans must be grossly insufficient. Combined with sky-high electrical costs, and an ever-more expensive grocery shop, there must be immense pressure on today’s students.

It isn’t acceptable. Under these conditions, people will feel trapped by their circumstances, and experience mental ill health. It doesn’t have to be this way. We should promote a fairer, more equitable housing system. We must compel employers to pay the real living wage, and to provide safe working conditions. We must hold landlords to account for the health and safety of their tenants, and be more flexible with contracts in cases where tenants face harm.

Overall, we must advocate for a mentally healthier nation. One for students. One for everyone.

Find out how you can get involved with the Student Minds Blog.

I am enthusiastic neuroscience student (PhD) and policy intern for Center for Mental Health, passionate about using research to change people's lives for the better.  

I am determined to work with researchers to change the mental health conversation, and advocate for fairer and more equitable health policies in the UK.

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