Harm reduction, student-led initiatives targeting binge-drinking at Canadian university

University of Toronto, Carleton University in Ottawa are hosting a dry frosh

Reka Rossignol remembers feeling a mix of frustration and fear while trying to get an incoherent friend back to their dorm after a night of drinking during their first year in university.

Campus security at the school in northern Ontario had just informed them that a bear had been spotted nearby and ordered everyone inside. Rossignol asked for help getting home but was told all security could do was call an ambulance for the young woman who was having trouble staying upright — something neither of the two students wanted.

The pair somehow struggled to their beds but, four years later, the memory of the night has stayed with Rossignol.

Binge drinking at the off-campus party like the one they were at was rampant, pressure to get drunk in the first place was high, and support for those who had too much was hard to come by, said the 23-year-old, who uses gender neutral pronouns.

“Everyone was partying on the weekends and everyone was binge drinking,” they said.

“There’s a lot of this toxic kind of culture of having to prove yourself. People want you to prove yourself as being a partier or being a big drinker and the more booze you can take the cooler you are.”

Research suggests binge drinking among youth, and women in particular, may be on the rise, with a recent study indicating a spike in emergency room visits related to alcohol issues by those groups.

Several universities are tackling the issue by reconsidering how they run their orientation week activities, placing harm reduction and an emphasis on students educating students about the risks of binge drinking at the centre of their initiatives.

At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., the school has a dry orientation — or frosh — week, as well as campus security and a first aid team available around the clock.

Beth Blackett, health promotion co-ordinator at Queen’s, said educational awareness happens at a peer-to-peer level during the week, with upper-year volunteers teaching new students everything from how to maintain a low blood alcohol concentration to pointers on how to safely pour a standard drink.

“Students, especially, think that others are drinking way more or way more often than they actually are,” said Blackett, who added that students showing other students how to have fun without alcohol can have a positive effect.

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All orientation facilitators and leaders sign contracts promising to remain sober throughout the week and undergo harm-reduction training, she said.

Since 1990, the school has also had an onsite non-medical detox facility called the “campus observation room,” which provides a safe place for students under the influence where they can be monitored by staff.

The University of Toronto’s campus in Mississauga, Ont., has dry orientation programs as well. The school works with student clubs to support them for their events and even pub nights during frosh week are “completely dry,” said Jessica Silver, the director of student engagement on campus.

Carleton University in Ottawa is also hosting a dry frosh, led by roughly 500 facilitators and 100 frosh leaders.

Douglas Cochrane, president of university’s student-run Rideau River Residence Association, said the orientation will try to correct perceived notions of how much university students drink.

“There’s no hiding it, binge drinking does happen on university and college campuses,” said Cochrane. “It’s important for both the university administration and also student organizations such as ourselves to be proactive instead of reactive to these situations.”

Research certainly backs up the anecdotal evidence that binge drinking is an issue among youth.

In July, a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal looked at patterns in alcohol-related ER visits in Ontario between 2003 and 2016.

The rate of alcohol-related ER visits spiked by 175 per cent among individuals aged 25 to 29. The change was even more pronounced among young women, who saw an increase of 240 per cent, the study showed.

Ann Johnston, who authored the book “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol,” pointed to a shift in cultural norms as an explanation.

It’s more acceptable for women to drink than in the past, she said, with the alcohol industry aiming marketing specifically towards women.

A ”pinking” of the market since the mid-1990s has seen the invention of “alcopop” drinks like Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Skinnygirl Cocktails and Smirnoff Ice that are typically aimed at young women, she noted.

“In our culture we drink to celebrate, relax, reward and we are completely sold on the notion that alcohol is a great way to unwind,” she said.

Johnston, who also co-founded the advocacy group the National Roundtable on Girls, Women and Alcohol, said the way to combat the issue is to increase awareness of low-risk drinking guidelines and scale back access to alcohol.

“There are three leaders that you can push on: marketing, accessibility, and pricing,” she said. ”That changes the way a population drinks.”

Emerald Bensadoun, The Canadian Press

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