University president: We know your kids are drinking and we need your help

This is the time of year when many college students return home to see family and friends, and to face nosy but well-meaning questions about school. Just as everyone at the holiday table will press them for information, students will be trying to assert some independence.

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The students have grown, made new friends and may be sporting a surprising new tattoo. As hard as students try to evade questions, I can assure you that they are still listening and caring about what their family members think. This is a moment that must not go to waste.

Family members have a chance – like no others do –to raise some tough topics about college life. The truth is that higher education leaders could really use your help.

A particular problem we’re grappling with now is the growing amount of high-risk alcohol and other drug use that is all too apparent on college campuses. We’re hard at work on it, and are frequently asked to do more, but we cannot make critical progress without family members.

Remember the advice that colleges give to family members, about “letting go” when students head to college? Parents shouldn’t let go entirely. Have the difficult conversations.

We know college is a time for experimentation by students who are exploring what it means to become an adult. But here’s the disturbing reality that we don’t talk about enough: Our nation’s college students are abusing alcohol and other drugs in ways that threaten their health, their safety and their academic success.

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Nationally, 7 out of 10 college students drink regularly, and 3 out of 10 will be problem drinkers. Binge drinking causes a long list of negative physical and mental health effects. It threatens students’ ability to perform academically, reducing their memory and problem-solving abilities.

In addition, increasing numbers of college students also struggle with abuse of opioids and other prescription drugs, despite education, prevention and clear sanctions. 

As a university president, I worry constantly about the ways that students’ choices today will impact the rest of their lives. Universities must balance the freedom necessary for students to become adults with the risks to their health and safety.

How do we find ways to convince students to create communities around other activities and traditions, to find fun and friendship without binge drinking?

At Tulane University we also work with our own public health experts to find new ways to prevent addiction before it happens and to aid in the recovery of those who may struggle with it. The answers are complicated, but what cannot be clearer is that we won’t succeed without the help of parents.

For one thing, we all have to work together to avoid sending any signals that make us complicit in a culture of alcohol and other drug abuse. We know that we can never enforce our way out of these complex problems, but when we look the other way, we set the wrong example.

Universities enforce the laws against underage drinking because doing otherwise sends the wrong message. But we must make sure enforcement happens in a fair, transparent and equitable way.

Parents also have to make really tough decisions about how to talk to their college students about alcohol, binge-drinking and other drug use. I know as a parent that these conversations aren’t easy. But they will be important, and parental opinions will matter.

Parents can help their students both understand healthy behaviors and become aware that they may be taking extreme risks.

Families are not in this alone. Check the campus health website for resources including names of dedicated campus health professionals, links to research and organizations focused on prevention. I offer advice to families ready to start this discussion or start it again, including:

  • Choose a good moment, when you won’t be rushed or distracted.

  • Listen well. Respect that your student is seeking independence.

  • Start from a place of commonality. Can we all agree on the importance of good health and healthy behaviors?

  • Consider in advance how you will address questions about your own behavior.

  • Bust a myth. Coffee will not help a person sober up, nor will a cold shower, water or exercise. 

  • Be ready to offer constructive ideas for alternatives to excessive partying. 

One of the illusions of youth is a sense of immortality, but the tragic fact is that excessive partying can result in real harm.

Often our students – your loved ones – are behaving as if it is possible to create and balance a fulfilling life and career with the abuse of alcohol and other drugs. It is not. We all know it and we must all send a clear message.

We must shift the college party culture to one where no student will need to be transported by ambulance, where no heartbreaking call needs to be made to families because of an overdose or car accident. Not a single one. It cannot happen too soon.