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Can Students Learn from Whitney Houston’s Death?

Many were shocked and saddened by the sudden, unexpected demise of singer Whitney Houston. Most wonder about the cause of death. While answers will undoubtedly come from the toxicology report, the news media tells of the presence of strong prescription meds in her hotel room. Those at her last impromptu musical performance testify that she had been drinking and appeared under the influence. Some medications combined with alcohol can be deadly, especially for those bathing in a hot tub. The singer takes her place in a long line of talented people whose lives were cut short or ruined by drug and alcohol addiction.

Perhaps Houston’s death can provide the vivid example needed to make changes in the drinking habits of many college students. Admissions officers and college marketers do a great job in helping young people from a variety of backgrounds get an education that can enrich their future. But the unrestrained party atmosphere on some campuses can prove to be a trap leading to alcoholism, squandered opportunities and wasted lives. According to a Center for Science in the Public Interest report:

• Annually some 30,000 college students overdose on alcohol, requiring medical treatment.

• 44% of students attending 4-year colleges engage in binge drinking.

• 19% of college students ages 18–24 met the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence.

• Every year, 599,000 students from 18-24 are unintentionally injured while intoxicated More than 696,000 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.

• 5% of female students reported that they were the victims of sexual assault, 75% of them raped while under the influence of alcohol.

And although a number of institutions have made efforts to curb binge drinking, it is still the norm at campuses across the nation. CSPI further reports, “Low price and very easy access to alcohol are strong correlates of binge drinking.” When discussing ways to get college seniors to attend a campus event, one official observed that offering cheap beer would guarantee a large crowd.

The result

Research shows the habits learned on campus can last a lifetime. The American Journal of Public Health reports that binge drinking rates of college students closely correlate with those of adults living in the same state. “The rate of binge drinking among college students was about 32 percent lower–36 percent compared to 53 percent–in the 10 states with the lowest rates of adult binge drinking compared to the ten states with the highest.”

This could mean that students are imitating behavior they’ve seen at home. But studies also show that many enduring adult attitudes and behaviors were formed in the college years. Regardless of where they learned to drink irresponsibly, many promising young people may well experience the truth of Mark Twain’s statement, exemplified by Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, Chris Farley and Whitney Houston: “It is easier to stay out than to get out.”

Possible solutions

Colleges already make commendable efforts to stop binge drinking. Can they do more? Raising liquor prices at campus pubs might be a good start. Also, making effective use of social psychology research can increase the impact of student information programs. Renowned communication psychology expert Dr. Robert Cialdini suggested to me in private correspondence that one tactic to lessen the allure of excessive alcohol consumption is to link it to “a disliked or disrespected outgroup.” He wrote, “One way to reduce binge drinking among college students might be to inform them that binging is the norm for high school students.”

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