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Who's Driving the Bus?

By: Robert Chapman, PhD

1 Your Role
I want to learn about treatment options for:

2 Basic Information
The Person is:
years old

graduated high school

3 Condition Information
Caron Treatment Centers accepts patients aged 13 years or older. For more information on services available to those 12 and under, please learn more about Caron's Student Assistance Program.

Have you ever found yourself suddenly aware that you have no recollection of the last few minutes/miles after having driven on an interstate for an extended period? Who among us cannot admit to entering that "zone" induced by the rhythmic "bump thump, bump-thump" of tires crossing pavement or the constant hum of the tires on the tarmac or metronome-like beat of wiper blades on a rain streaked windshield?

While cruising down the highway, the "auto pilot" switched “on,” a driver can literally travel miles with no awareness of the journey...signs are ignored, exits missed, scenery passes unnoticed – or not, perhaps something more benign. It's only when called upon to negotiate a particularly challenging situation or encountering an unexpected road hazard that we are catapulted back to the present, often with a start that rivals a 100 joules from the ER doc's paddles – complete with a white-knuckle death grip on the steering wheel, and a flood of adrenaline that renders muscles beyond rational control, the driver is momentarily little more than a passenger hurtling through space.  As higher education administrators, professional staff, and faculty, we may well have entered that "zone" as we cruise the information super highway, at least in regard to alcohol and our students. If so, we must prepare for the wake-up call that will jolt us back to the present.

Campus alcohol use has garnered a disproportionate amount of e-reports, listserv discussions, and news articles. We tweet and read tweets, see Face-book pictures and stories; we watch the 10 o'clock news, Fox News, and the Daily News. We hear the "bump-thump, bump-thump" that "binge” drinking is ubiquitous on today’s college and university campuses. We hear about alcohol awareness weeks and we enter "the zone" without ever realizing we're there. It seems as though we are only marginally aware of the terms coined by those who study student behaviors, but never seem to have time to listen to what individual students actually say about the lexicon, without question-binge drinking, collegiate drinking out of control, alcohol-related sexual assaults. Politicians consider appropriations to address these issues, following their belief (and the lead of many administrators) that the quick fix of informing students, for example, education and awareness activities, to "just say no" is somehow the answer to the nation's alcohol and other drug problems.  Higher education has made great strides over the past 20-years in increasing our understanding of the risks associated with substance use disorders, consequences to students, the campus, and surrounding community, and making a strong case that it is time to pursue this effort further.

It is the start of a new academic year. Many of the students who have learned from their experiences and moderated their alcohol use have graduated and entered the workforce, replaced by a new cadre of first-year students, entering higher education with their established high school patterns of use, and beliefs about alcohol and other drugs. So, here is a friendly and heartfelt reminder: those graduates whose use patterns changed during their undergraduate experience and were affected by the policies, procedures, and efforts of many dedicated student affairs professionals, senior administrators, and faculty members are gone.  It is once again up to us, those administrators, and faculty, and our colleagues who chose to become involved in addressing dangerous alcohol and other drug use – we must redouble our efforts.  The important lessons learned, the research vetted, the programs implemented, and the efforts made must be continued if not expanded as we address the class of 2019. 

As we begin the 2015 – 2016 academic year, it is important to recognize that we, dedicated professional staff, faculty, and administrators, are driving the bus. As competition mounts to attract students to “brick and mortar” campuses, and as fiscal belt tightening prompts us to evaluate expenditures, aiming for each students to remain through graduation; this represents tens-of-thousands of dollars realized in tuition, fees, housing income, and other benefits, not the least of which is alumni contributions and endowments. Addressing alcohol and other drug issues directly relates to these fiscal realities. Each student whose behavior is modified by exposure to one or more prevention or intervention efforts stands a greater chance of remaining matriculated through graduation. Moderating behavior of high-risk drinkers results in fewer quality of life issues that prompt others to transfer and, as a result, more students remain matriculated through graduation.  Additionally, those who do remain feel better about their overall campus experience. Estimates indicate that 25% of all students that leave campus before graduation do so because of alcohol or other drug issues - either because of their use or as a result of the use of others.  How can we raise the bar on our approach to addressing alcohol and other drug use? How can we mediate these negative consequences when they do occur?