College life looked very different for students this 2020-21 academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many colleges transitioned to online learning, resulting in students falling into a world of social isolation and distancing.
About half of the current college students in the U.S. drink alcohol and about one-third of those students binge drink. The pandemic’s uncertainty and stress, combined with disrupted routines, may have encouraged some students to progress into heavier drinking habits. Many students don’t even remember how they started drinking or how they built a reliance on alcohol to get them through the day.
A student in his junior year at Wheaton College stated, “I remember the first time I got hungover and how horrible that feeling was. But at one point hangovers became routine. I don’t know how it got to that point.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking puts students at an increased risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus. Underaged drinking often occurs within the freshman class on college campuses and leads to reckless behavior due to inhibition caused by alcohol. Reduced inhibitions from alcohol can also affect students’ abilities to take appropriate social distancing precautions needed to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Beginning in the Spring of 2020, the amount of alcohol consumed by undergraduate students decreased according to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. For students who moved home from living on-campus, the weekly number of days they drank significantly decreased from 3.1 to 2.7 days per week. The report says that the decrease in underage drinking may be due to students moving back home and living with their parents during the 2020-21 school year. The report states that because students lived at home this year, it “provides fewer social opportunities for drinking.”
It is well established that the drinking habits of college students increase when they leave home. According to a survey conducted to compare the drinking habits of students who lived with peers pre-campus closure and moved home, with those who continued to live in their current living situation either with their peers or parents. The comparison of pre- to post-closure drinking resulted in a decrease in the typical number of drinks students had per week from 11.5 to 9.9. Those who moved in with their parents after having lived with a peer pre-closure showed the greatest decrease in alcohol consumption. Therefore, returning to live with parents during the COVID-19 pandemic protected students from both social and binge drinking.
Though there have been many cases in which college students decreased their drinking levels in the 2020-21 academic year, a Kent State study found that alcohol consumption among college students specifically at Kent State increased during this time. The research indicated that consumption was up among students in general and also that those without access to health services were more at risk for binge drinking.
“We believed going into this that drinking would have increased in college students due to COVID-19,” leader of the Kent State study William Lechner, Ph.D. said. “We also believed that those with vulnerabilities would be more susceptible to the temptation of alcohol consumption.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has created increased levels of stress and mental health-related issues for college students. Though students living at home may have decreased their levels of drinking during the 2020-21 academic year, others who did live on campus during this time experienced an increase in drinking habits. There are ongoing efforts being made on college campuses across the U.S. to address the problem of harmful and underage student drinking. These strategies include targeting individual students, the student body as a whole, and the community outside of the campus for interventions and awareness programs.
Wheaton College has held classes both online and in-person during this 2020-21 academic year and is therefore making a supportive effort by offering students virtual teletherapy services through the Counseling Center. The campus is also spreading awareness of the access students have to an After Hours Mental Health Support hotline during the times when the counseling staff members are unavailable.