College Students Ask: Is My Drinking Really a Problem? Do I Need Addiction Treatment for Alcohol?

college students sitting on bench

Summertime means different things for different college students. Some travel abroad, some take classes to catch up or get ahead, some stay busy with internships or jobs, and some take a well-deserved break from the school grind to chill, relax, and recharge their internal batteries. It’s a natural time to look back on the year, decide how it went, and make plans for the upcoming semester.

If your year went well, then you’re probably loving summer, but you’re also looking forward to getting back on campus. If your year wasn’t great, then maybe you have a little more on your mind. Maybe your grades weren’t what you wanted. Maybe you partied more than you should have. Maybe you drank a little too much.

Maybe you think your drinking affected your grades.

Maybe it’s more than that: you know you went way overboard with the partying and drinking and you’re sure that’s why your grades weren’t up to par. Then you kept up the partying through the summer, and now you think you may have a problem. Worse, you know when you go back to school – where the excessive drinking started – it’s going to be really hard to keep yourself in check.

Now you’re worried: what should you do?

Do you see a professional? Go to support group meetings? Get addiction treatment? Do you do all that before you go back to school, so you set yourself up for success?

Those are all valid questions. If you’re asking them of yourself, you should take them seriously. The first thing you need to do is figure out if your drinking really is a problem. In the language of treatment and recovery, it’s time for you to decide – and be brutally honest with yourself – if your drinking is within typical limits, or if you have what’s called an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?

The handbook used by mental health professionals to diagnose and classify mental health and substance abuse disorders is called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V). If you think you have a problem with alcohol, then you can use the following questionnaire – as recommended by the DSM-V – to diagnose yourself.

In the past year, have you…

  1. Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended?
  2. More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  3. Spent a lot of time drinking, or being sick and getting over the after-effects of drinking?
  4. Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?
  5. Found that drinking, or being sick from drinking, often interfered with taking care of your home or family, cause job-related troubles, or problems with school?
  6. Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  7. Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  8. More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt?
  9. Continued to drink even after a memory blackout, and even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem?
  10. Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want, or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  11. Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, sensing things that were not there, or seizures?

If you answer yes to two or more of the questions above, then the DSM-V indicates you have an AUD. AUDs can be mild, moderate, or sever:

  • Mild: positive answers to two or three of the diagnostic questions.
  • Moderate: positive answers to four or five of the diagnostic questions.
  • Severe: positive answers to six or more of the diagnostic questions.

Common Levels of Alcohol Use

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offer simple definitions of alcohol consumption and how these levels affect general health and wellness. If you’re unsure where you fall on the continuum, use these guidelines to clarify your position:

  • Moderate Alcohol Consumption: Up to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
  • Binge Drinking: Five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women in a two-hour period on at least one day over the course of a month.
  • Heavy Alcohol Consumption: Binge drinking on five or more days over the course of a month.

These definitions align with what most people know through personal experience. Moderate consumption is what everyone would consider normal, social drinking. Binge drinking tends to happen in college or early adulthood. Heavy drinking is what happens when consumption gets out of hand and becomes an obvious problem.

However, these three categories beg the question: “What constitutes one drink?” Serving sizes and alcohol content can vary a great deal. Drinking at a bar or restaurant is not the same as drinking at a private party, and the amount of alcohol in a drink depends on what you’re drinking: beer, malt liquor, wine, and distilled spirits all contain different percentages of alcohol. Here’s how the NIAAA defines a standard drink:

  • 12 ounces of beer containing around 5% alcohol. Think of a regular can of beer.
  • 8-9 ounces of malt liquor containing around 7% alcohol. Think of a pint glass around half-full.
  • 5 ounces of wine containing around 12% alcohol. Think of a regular glass of wine you might get with dinner at a restaurant.
  • 5 ounces of distilled spirits (liquor like vodka, whiskey, gin, or tequila) containing around 40% alcohol (80 proof). Think of a regular-sized shot glass.

Are You at Risk of Developing an Alcohol Use Disorder?

Based on the figures above, the NIAA defines low-risk drinking as:

  • Less than three drinks a day and seven drinks a week for women.
  • Less than four drinks a day and fourteen drinks a week for men.

Only around 2% of people who drink within these limits – i.e. low-to-moderate drinkers – develop an AUD. Consumption above these levels increases the chance of developing an AUD. The NIAA College Fact Sheet reveals that the drinking habits of college students make them particularly vulnerable to developing an AUD. The facts speak for themselves:

  • Close to 67% of college students who reported drinking at least once a month also engage in binge drinking
  • Binge drinkers who consume alcohol at least three times a week are six times more likely to perform poorly on a test due to drinking, and five times more likely to miss a class due to drinking
  • Roughly 25% of college students report alcohol negatively impacts their academic performance
  • About 20% of college students meet the DSM-V established criteria for an AUD.

Now, re-read the NIAA definition of low-risk drinking. If your drinking habits exceed those parameters and put you in the at-risk category, then it’s time to face the facts: you may well be on your way to an Alcohol Use Disorder. And if you know you have a problem, then it’s time to consider treatment options. It’s not time to freak out, but it is time to do something about it.

Back to that initial question: should you do something about it before you go back, to set yourself up for success?

The answer is simple: yes.

Take the time you have now to lay down the foundation for a successful year. Call us at 800-701-6997 and we’ll do everything we can to help you get control of your drinking and get your life on track. Also, keep an eye on this blog: upcoming posts will discuss the Sober Dorm movement happening on college campuses across the country, and provide an extensive list of helpful resources designed specifically for college students struggling to make it through school while in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse.