College Alcohol Expert Urges Students to Make Healthier Choices

Posted: October 24, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

David Anderson teaching class
David Anderson hopes that the new Healthy Expectations program will appeal to students’ desires for a healthy lifestyle.

By Colleen Kearney Rich and Fran Rensbarger

When he was a residence hall director at the Ohio State University, David S. Anderson saw a student wheeled out on a stretcher – dead – from overuse of alcohol. Every year, an estimated 1,700 college students across America die in alcohol-related incidents, including traffic crashes. Now, as director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Health at Mason and associate professor in the School of Recreation, Health and Tourism, Anderson is trying to do something about it.

About two-fifths of college students do abuse alcohol, and the academic performance of students correlates inversely to alcohol use: The more students drink, the poorer their class performance and the lower their grades.

In his research, Anderson has tried to pinpoint what students are looking for when they choose to abuse alcohol or other drugs, and he wants to educate students about the gap between the reality and perception of alcohol use on campus.

“Most college professionals nationally acknowledge the reality that students, even those who are underage, do drink,” says Anderson. “Very few students begin drinking while they are in college. By the time they arrive on the college campus, most students have already made decisions about alcohol for themselves.

“If you look at high school seniors, nearly half have used alcohol in the last month; 33 percent, a third of them, have been drunk in the last month,” he says. “Those are the college students we inherit.”

Trying to Change the Numbers

For many years, Anderson’s book, “Promising Practices: Campus Alcohol Strategies,” written with Gail Gleason Milgram of Rutgers University, has been mailed to every college in the country at no cost.

“To deal with alcohol problems, you need to have a comprehensive approach,” Anderson explains. “Too many colleges are just holding an awareness day once a year” because most lack the financial resources or commitment to do much more.

David Anderson
David Anderson
Creative Services photos

Despite Anderson’s efforts, the information and resources that are available and all the college programs, the statistics on college-age drinking nationally haven’t budged. Approximately 40 percent of college students abuse alcohol, having had five or more drinks at a setting at least once in the prior two weeks.

“We have done more and more. More dollars have been put toward [preventing] abusive drinking by college students, and we have not seen much of a result,” Anderson said on the recently aired public television program “Sesno Reports: America Drinks.”

Even as “Promising Practices” was being distributed, Anderson went looking for more answers. In 1995, at a conference at the University of Notre Dame, Anderson and some of his peers decided the alcohol abuse programs in place at the time may have had a misplaced focus.

The group went back to the original question, “Why do students want the buzz or high?” and shifted toward a life and health principle focus, which resulted in a book, “Charting Your Course: A Lifelong Guide to Health and Compassion,” edited by Anderson and colleague Sally Coleman. Written for young adults and used by universities across the country, the book examined seven life-health principles for holistic health. Following a second conference at Notre Dame, a new program called Healthy Expectations was born at George Mason University.

Having Healthier Expectations

Healthy Expectations, a pilot program funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, strives to correct students’ misperceptions about alcohol on college campuses and promote positive life and health behaviors. By sharing survey data with students and parents, it helps students think more proactively about their health. Classroom presentations and small group discussions with college freshmen on themes ranging from values and self-care to relationships and community service are elements of the program.

Since the transition to college begins well before students arrive on campus, the Healthy Expectations program includes information for local high school students as well as Mason freshmen. [In an attempt to reach high school students, Anderson served on a panel in September at a town meeting, “Teens and Alcohol: Promoting Dialogue on Underage Drinking,” organized in conjunction with Fairfax County Public Schools and moderated by Frank Sesno, CNN correspondent and Mason professor of public policy and communication. A webcast of the meeting is available online.]

“The Healthy Expectations project was designed to assist first-year students in making the healthiest decisions possible during – and following – the first year,” says Anderson. “A key component in sound decision-making is the active involvement of a student’s support networks, especially family. We present these tips, facts and resources with the hope that they will help the students develop and/or maintain open and healthy communication and support in dealing with the many exciting transitions ahead.”

COMPASS Comes to Mason

Now the Healthy Expectations program has a new component. “COMPASS: A Roadmap to Healthy Living” is a CD and web site filled with practical advice and hundreds of resources. In the coming weeks, the CD will be distributed to all first-year students at Mason along with a letter from Anderson and Sandra Hubler, vice president of University Life.

“What we hope to do with the COMPASS initiative is to change the conversation, to look at health-promoting and human potential-enhancing issues, such as maximizing your academic success and dealing with your stress in a healthful way,” Anderson says. “These issues, we believe, are linked to the healthy decisions about alcohol and drugs. We also find that, with many of these issues, young adults are using drugs and alcohol to cope.”

Written by a number of faculty and staff members from George Mason, COMPASS focuses on optimism, values, self-care, relationships, community, nature and service. At the same time, it offers information and university, regional and national resources on topics such as time management, personal safety, anger management, sleep and nutrition.

“Saying [using alcohol] is against the law is an argument students might not hear. But it is one we need to say,” Anderson continues. “It is my belief that we benefit by emphasizing health messages, safety messages, ethical messages, in conjunction with the legal messages, and not rely on simply: ‘It is against the law, don’t do it.’”

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