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Experts promote multi-faceted approach to binge drinking on college campuses

That’s why experts suggest a multi-pronged approach to the problem of binge drinking on campus, including identifying students with depression and anxiety who may be self-medicating.

“Screening is incredibly important to detect this problem and to act,” Paola Pedrelli, the director of dual diagnoses studies at Massachusetts General Hospital, told about 50 people, including medical professionals, college administrators, paramedics and law enforcement officials at a lecture sponsored by Cooley Dickinson Hospital at Hadley Farms Meeting House Thursday.

Pedrelli and Dr. Amy Yule, addiction recovery management service at Mass General and clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, talked about how to address rampant binge drinking among college students.

Also troubling, speakers noted, are statistics showing an increase in binge drinking issues among young women.

“Unfortunately what’s happening today is girls want to drink just like the boys and don’t understand their physiology is different,” said Pedrelli, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

Binge drinking, Yule said, is defined by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as getting one’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 within a two-hour period, which typically means four standard drinks or 12 ounces of beer for women and five standard drinks for men.

Pedrelli said if screening is done right, such as asking the right questions to understand how much students are actually drinking, then an appropriate intervention can be crafted.

But Pedrelli said less than half of colleges even conduct screenings, and even then only one in five colleges use what are considered valid screening tools.

Students need to be engaged in this screening process because the binge drinker otherwise won’t be easily presented.

Binge drinking, Yule said, leads to unintentional injuries, drunken driving incidents and risk of physical and sexual assaults. In the longer term, it can lead to dangerous alcohol disorders.

The immediate effect of binge drinking is something seen at Cooley Dickinson, where R.F. Conway, director of emergency services, said weekend after weekend college-age students arrive with dangerous alcohol-related symptoms.

Yule said the prevalence of drinking heavily peaks in the 21 to 25 age range, and is more likely in a university setting.

“We do see that people enrolled in a college full time binge drink more than people not enrolled in a college full time,” Yule said.

Yule said there is something about being in college that influences drinking patterns. In addition, she said, very few students seek treatment on their own.

Pedrelli said with anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder, there is a “self-medication hypothesis” for why some students drink.

Just heading to college can cause alcohol consumption. “Starting college is incredibly traumatic for a student,” Pedrelli said.

With the right screening, a college can use motivational interviewing to introduce change through empathy and communicating with students in a non-confrontational manner. Pedrelli said this is the opposite of the concept of tough love.

One done in this style is Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students, or BASICS, a program already in use at the University of Massachusetts for students who violate the alcohol rules.

There are also ways the larger community can help. Pedrelli said enforcing drinking age laws, banning sales of alcohol or marketing on campus and creating campus and community coalitions has helped with binge drinking.

Education and intervention alone aren’t enough, though Pedrelli said in some cases students do need to develop an understanding of how alcohol will affect them.

Some simple advisories to students can also serve them well, including avoiding drinking games, avoiding hard liquor and setting limits for how much will be consumed.

There is also evidence that a majority of students who binge drink use other substances in combination with alcohol. Pedrelli said the most common is marijuana, which 54 percent have used when drinking.

One thing is certain, Yule said: Without confronting binge drinking, the problem worsens.

“People who are binge drinking develop tolerance over time,” Yule said. “They need to drink more to have the same effect.”

Researchers are concerned about heavy alcohol use affecting brain development in younger people. “Alcohol poisoning is a real problem,” Yule said.

Whether these ideas will improve the situation in the Amherst area is unclear.

Amherst Assistant Fire Chief Lindsay Stromgren said one thing he took away form the lecture was that binge drinking is a national problem that has no easy answers.

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