Alcohol abuse program makes measurable gains

With spring in full bloom and warmer weather approaching, many college students plan parties complete with coolers full of beer, wine and other beverages. Looking for a good time with good friends, good music and good food, some of those students are bound to end up having a bad time, with vomiting, hangovers, blackouts or worse. And there’s the rub.

“Part of having a good time is not having a bad time,” says Patricia Maarhuis, coordinator of WSU’s Alcohol and Drug Counseling, Assessment and Prevention Services. That’s been the message this month in a special Spring Break campaign, but it’s a huge part of ADCAPS’ ongoing program that is becoming the envy of colleges around the country.

“We are really moving in a great direction,” says Jerry Pastore, WSU’s substance abuse specialist since 2001. “This intervention is research-based and tested.”

Difficult to measure
Developed by the University of Washington and endorsed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a model program, the WSU program is beginning to show progress in an area where progress is notoriously difficult to achieve, or measure.

“This is an area where it is very difficult to prove behavior change,” admits Barbara Hammond, director of the WSU Counseling Center, which oversees the ADCAPS program. Empirical data is being collected this spring, and all indications from student feedback show that the “Party Safe, Party Smart” message is being heard. Positive comments are being heard about outreach and education services, increases in self-referrals for help dealing with alcohol issues, and growing support for alcohol-free social activities on campus.

Maarhuis works with Pastore and a team of 12 graduate students to provide:
• outreach prevention programs
• risk assessment screenings
• one-to-one counseling
• small group interventions

“Our program is based on what our clients need, and it is clinically sound,” Maarhuis says.

The guiding principal is an emphasis on harm reduction — giving students the facts they need to make informed decisions about their drinking behavior.

One in five don’t drink
According to an ADCAPS survey, about 21 percent of WSU students don’t drink at all and about 58 percent consume four or fewer drinks in an evening. That leaves about 21 percent who put themselves at risk because of their drinking behavior.

“We try to break the myth that more is better,” says Pastore. “Chemically and physiologically, it doesn’t happen. There’s a point of diminishing returns with alcohol.”

There is a fine but distinct line between social drinking and drinking to get drunk. For most folks, that’s a blood alcohol level of about .055. When a student repeatedly trips over that line, the crucial question is, “Why?”

Maarhuis and Pastore say they never assume they know the answer. First they ask questions, then they listen, and then they come up with a plan.

If a student says he or she drinks to relax, for instance, they don’t argue, but they do point out that three or four drinks in an hour or eight drinks over the course of an evening typically put a 120-lb. woman well past relaxed and at risk of blacking out.

WSU’s alcohol policy
WSU’s official alcohol policy, adopted in 2002, states that minors are not allowed to consume alcohol, and alcohol use among legal adults is strictly restricted or prohibited. On the first violation of the policy, a student is required to attend a university-sponsored alcohol education class and, depending on the severity of the situation, parents might be notified.

On the second offense, parents are notified if the student is underage, and the student is placed on disciplinary probation. A third offense results in parents again being notified and the student being suspended for a minimum of one semester. The suspension is not punitive, Pastore says, but is recognition that the student needs more intensive treatment than the university can provide.

If a student runs afoul of WSU’s alcohol policy, the first step is completing an online alcohol use survey, which immediately provides a snapshot of the student’s own behavior as well as a comparison with typical or low-risk behavior. That snapshot includes relevant information, such as how many calories those extra drinks pack or the money being spent to wake up with a hangover.

“There are often one or two hooks that motivate a student to change risky behavior,” Maarhuis says, and many students are surprised by what they learn about themselves.

Chronic students take required class
If the survey answers indicate the possibility of a chronic problem, the student is required to meet individually with a counselor. Most students are then required to enroll in a small-group, two-session IMPACT course that meets for a total of three hours.

“They start by seeing it as punishment,” Hammond says, “but it turns out to be so much better than they anticipated. It’s practical. They learn some things.”

The ADCAPS program served about 700 students last year, most in the IMPACT classes. Hammond says she is very encouraged by the anecdotal information she is hearing from students, but the empirical data about the effectiveness of the program is just starting to come in.