As University students start to enrol, is it inevitable they will drink excessively?

Guest blog from Don Shenker, Founder and Director, Alcohol Health Network

While giving out alcohol awareness flyers to unsuspecting international students at Kingston University this week, I was reminded of my own nervousness laced with excitement when I enrolled for the Polytechnic of Wales two decades ago for my Communications degree. I’m pretty sure no-one gave me any information about government drinking guidelines in those carefree and reckless days.

There were certainly a lot of anxious young faces in Kingston being bombarded with probably too much information about how to join the gym, the GP, how to avoid falling off Kingston Bridge into the Thames (one alcohol-related fatality last year) and where to go for emotional support.

This was the ‘Welcome event’ for new students, a remarkably well organised week which ensured students got their ID badges alongside health information for the academic years ahead. International students were first up, some of them still suffering from jet-lag and the shock of finding themselves in student halls.

There seemed to be two broad camps as I approached them, those who told me they didn’t drink and seemed rather nervous of anything alcohol-related and those who smiled easily and welcomed a chance to see how British drinking worked in practice.

I quickly realised how little many new students from abroad knew about alcohol content, strength and volume. It made me rather nervous for them going out into the bars of Kingston drinking pints of premium lager…

In any case, how easy is it to temper the healthy inclination to experiment, explore and discover when you are set free from the confines of your parent’s home. Is harm minimisation the best we can hope for?

Student misuse of alcohol in the UK remain stubbornly high in spite of a downward trend in alcohol misuse among young people aged 16-19. A 2010 study published by Alcohol Research UK found 51% of students drinking ‘hazardly’ in one institution. Students drink more therefore than their same age counterparts who are not at University. With the rise in numbers of young people attending University this presents considerable public health challenges.

Drinkaware has run “Why let the good times go bad” campaigns for several years with the NUS, but I am unaware of its evaluation.

The flyers I was distributing were promoting a new website designed specifically for Kingston University students to find out more about their own drinking and how to drink more safely. Commissioned by the Royal Borough of Kingston’s Public Health Directorate the E-Drink-Check for Kingston students, developed by Alcohol Health Network, will allow students to assess their own drinking levels and receive personalised feedback based on a social norms approach.

The online approach follows an Identification and Brief Advice model recommended by NICE, allowing students to use AUDIT, the gold standard screening tool and see instantly their result online.

Students will also be able to keep a track of their drinking over a four-month period enabling them to compare their drinking over time as part of a follow-up study. Kingston’s Public Health Team will receive anonymised data on basic demographics of those who use the website as well as their drinking levels and follow up results.

This will all feed into an evaluation of the approach, alongside (hopefully) some focus groups with students on this approach. Kingston will then roll out a definitive website for students in 2014 based on the learning.

One of the key questions for the evaluation will be – alongside how many students actually make use of the website – to what extent will it make a difference in passing on a message of safer drinking for students? In four months time, we will find out…

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