November 30, 2021

Substance-abuse strategy

Colleges join effort to combat drinking, drug use

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

SUNY Cortland senior Patrice DiTommaso drinks alcohol with her classmates Sam Ketcham, center, and Jillian Peirce, right, at a residence Wednesday on Tompkins Street in Cortland.

DRYDEN — The perception: Tompkins Cortland Community College students knock back seven or more drinks at a sitting — leading to a serious case of beer goggles.

The reality: College students who drink might have one to three.

The perception: 90 percent of one’s classmates have imbibed in the past month.

The reality: Maybe 50 percent had a drink.

College students don’t drink as much as they think they do, but their own misperceptions complicate TC3’s effort to combat substance abuse.

The college is one of 20 campuses across New York to get a five-year, $625,000 grant from the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services for substance-abuse services. Sara Watrous, the prevention coordinator at TC3, said the college is still trying to create its strategy.

The college has formed a campus coalition of community agencies, students and staff and created a needs assessment survey of students and staff.

The survey, conducted last fall, highlights behaviors of at-risk students and identifies where underage students get their alcohol. It also suggests that students perceive their peers to party much more than they really do, Watrous said.

SUNY Cortland is also sharing in the mission. Marissa Whitaker, the college’s substance abuse prevention and education coordinator, said SUNY Cortland also has a coalition and is working to reduce high-risk substance use.

The goals of the five-year grant are to reduce underage drinking, drug use and prescription pill misuse, she said.

The college has three strategies:

• Reduce access to and availability of alcohol and drugs to those students.
• Change attitudes and norms that support underage drinking and drug use.
• Provide Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment services to students.

The first step, this year, is the needs assessment, Whitaker said. The data were collected through focus groups, interviews and a campuswide survey conducted by the University of Buffalo Research Institute on Addiction.

Once the data are compiled, programming in the upcoming year can be tailored to students, she said.

At TC3, a few things the college has already found, Watrous said, is that students have misconceptions about how much their peers drink.

Substance use at TC3

[one-half]Used in past 30 days[/one-half]
[one-half-first]Non-medical opioid[/one-half-first]
[one-half]3 percent[/one-half]
[one-half]5 percent[/one-half]
[one-half]28 percent[/one-half]
[one-half]56 percent[/one-half]

• 31 percent are low-risk non-binge drinkers
• 24 percent are high-risk binge drinkers

Consequences of drinking

• 11 percent unable to remember while drinking
• 6 percent gotten into sexual situations they regretted
• 4 percent work or academics suffered
• 2.4 percent damaged property
• 0.6 percent got into trouble with school or residence hall
Source: TC3 needs assessment survey

“Most students are drinking within healthy limits but they assume they’re drinking more,” she said.

For example, students assume a typical college student will drink excessively, perhaps as much as seven drinks in one sitting, she said, when in reality that number is closer to one to three drinks.

Additionally, students will assume more than 90 percent of students have had alcohol within the past month, when really that number is just over 50 percent.

So the college plans to get the message out to students about the inflated perceptions.

Watrous said by exposing students to the facts about substance abuse, it might reduce unhealthy habits.

“That misperception can kind of fuel unhealthy alcohol and drug use,” she said.

The college also will:

• Partner with police for routine patrols of partying areas, and to do compliance checks at retailers and convenience stores that may be sell to underage students.
• Examine alcohol and drug use policies on campus with an eye toward education rather than punishment.
• Conduct alcohol and substance abuse screenings to get students services before the use becomes a problem, rather than after.

The screenings would start with the health center, but Watrous said she’d like to expand it to other departments, such as the counseling office or advising offices.

“The hope is to expand it so that at the end of the five years, all students are being screened early on,” Watrous said.