Certain behaviors particular to millennials do suggest a riskier relationship with alcohol.
If I were to pinpoint the moment my drinking became truly out of control in a sustained way, forming my future relationship with and dependence on alcohol, it would be in college.
I believe that many of us are predisposed to crutches, to using behaviors to cope with life in general: to be more social and to be less anxious. And while we may eventually need to tame our indulgences at some point in our lives, college seems to facilitate and enable an unhealthy relationship with alcohol at an accelerated rate.
Why is college such a critical factor for young people these days when it comes to developing drinking issues? And why is it that millennials are all of a sudden coming out of college as alcoholics when many used to view college days as a short period of experimentation and all-around “good clean fun?”
What Makes a Perfect Storm?
For almost a century, society has associated college years with obligatory but harmless binge drinking. But only now are many of us seeing college drinking culture as the perfect storm for a budding young alcoholic. So what makes college the hatchery for alcoholics?
For the first time for many, there are no parents around, which means students have fewer perceived boundaries on choices and behavior. Young adults have to put their own limits on their lives, and some are less capable of dealing with this newfound autonomy than others.
Secondly, given overwhelming circumstantial changes, new anxieties can develop that are tempered by alcohol. Twenty-five percent of millennials with financial stress, for example, use alcohol to cope. Other pressures involve the requirement to be sociable with strangers and popular among a melting pot of different cultures. Coupled with the excessive drinking culture, these all point to potential alcoholism.
It’s painful to admit, but I’m not unaware of how different my life could have been if I had stopped drinking earlier – or maybe if I had never been in an environment where the lines between social and binge drinking were so blurred. Actually, I think about my behavior in college and the circumstances and incidents I found myself in while under the influence almost every day.
Almost every mistake I have made in my life has resulted from my drinking, including injuries, broken friendships, ended relationships, stunted career progression and emotional trauma.
Yes, I may have struggled with alcohol at a later date had I not pursued academia, but college certainly encouraged a “letting go of the reins” mentality, and sure enough, I fell off the horse more than once.
It May Not Be a New Phenomenon, but Statistics Tell a Story
More and more universities are taking serious precautions to try to limit binge drinking both on and off campus. The statistics tell us that each year almost 2,000 students die due to alcohol-related incidents. A horrifying 690,000 college students are assaulted by people who have been under the influence, and almost 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-induced date rape.
The NIAAA also reports that over a quarter of students suffer academically as a result of their heavy drinking habits. In fact, many universities have imposed serious policies for those violating alcohol consumption rules, including sanctions, mandatory AA meetings, suspension, or even expulsion. Are these new measures a sign that alcohol issues in college are more and more prevalent with young people today?
There is the argument that drinking in college may not be worsening but that there are simply more statistics and research available now that identify the worrying trends associated with college drinking. More time has passed to collect data on our drinking habits in college, and there is more evidence revealing the correlation of alcohol consumption with future dependencies, dangerous incidents and other harmful consequences. But while the new focus on college drinking may partly be attributed to greater knowledge and awareness, it doesn’t detract from the severity of the issues facing the current generation.
No, millennials are not the first people to use college as an excuse to binge drink – the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that 60 percent of students 18-22 consume alcohol. So why am I placing the scrutiny on my generation?
What’s so Unique About Millennials?
Certain behaviors particular to millennials do suggest a riskier relationship with alcohol. Almost one third of American alcoholics are youngsters, and over 50 percent of these have been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder (ASPD). This means that millennials aren’t only binge drinking because they’re in college, but because they’re trying to cope with the symptoms of ASPD.
Another insight: Millennials are crazy about wine. Millennials consumed 159.6 million cases of wine in 2015 – that’s more wine than any other generation has consumed within 365 days. This pattern has undoubtedly come about with the rise of social networking and more advanced technology — over 50 percent of them talk about it on Facebook, and over a third use other sites to share their experiences, usually as lighthearted jokes.
However, it’s not all about the vino. Given the tendency of millennials to be health-conscious, with one 2014 study revealing that 95 percent of them prioritize personal health, they are now opting for less caloric alcoholic beverages such as vodka and other spirits. Consumption of spirit shots above mixed, sugary drinks has increased from 13 percent to almost 30 percent.
I can attest to the prevalence of the shot culture. I once had something similar to this contraption spinning in my house. We called it the Wheel of Misfortune. We thought we were funny, I guess. Past generations, though, did not consume shots the way the current generation does. And shots hit the body in an entirely different, often unpredictable, way.
Finally, it seems that the youth of today are more stressed than ever before. As someone who struggles with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, I can certainly relate. The average stress-gauge of other generations is around 4.9, and yet millennials come in at 5.5. Millennials are becoming more and more known for their issues with mental health, particularly depression and anxiety. With alcohol also becoming less expensive, drinking seems to be an obvious stress-reliever for millennials.
Whether alcoholism is acutely worse for young people today, or we’re simply more aware of the dangers involved in binge drinking, we’ve come to a point where we can’t look away. I’m all for the all-good-things-in-moderation way of life. However, somewhere along the line for me, spending carefree nights at the bar with my friends in college turned into a full-fledged substance abuse problem, which followed me into my adult life.
Take it from me, nobody wants that kind of financial, physical, and emotional burden when you’re trying to get on your feet and start your life. We need to protect the next generation of graduates. I’d certainly rather they carried less alcohol-related baggage in their adult years than I do.
Kate Harveston enjoys writing about social justice and policy change. When she’s not writing, she enjoys hiking the mountains of Pennsylvania to find inspiration. If you like her work, feel free to visit her at onlyslightlybiased.com.