At the University of Chicago, three to four times as many students were sent to the emergency room this quarter for excessive alcohol consumption than last fall quarter, prompting University administrators to warn students of the dangers of alcohol abuse via email.
Dean of Students Susan Art said that while fewer than 20 students had been sent to the ER because alcohol had rendered them unresponsive, the small number belies the seriousness of the situation.
“We thought it was worth flagging for everyone because it is so potentially lethal,” Art said.
Art and Kim Goff-Crews, vice president for campus life, cited anecdotal evidence from housing and custodial staff and noted the higher numbers of ER visits.
“That doesn’t mean that all these people are alcoholics. It means they’re drinking too much,” said Dr. Doug Culbert, a psychologist at the SCRS who specializes in counseling students with alcohol. “Acute intoxication can be as dangerous as chronic intoxication.”
The e-mail pointed out the positive role students and staff can play in cases of alcohol abuse, citing the “guidance and support” of community members. Art said the University’s alcohol policies encourage responsibility in students. She contrasted University policy with more punitive measures taken by other schools, which she said “make[s] it harder for people to step forward and get help.”
“Our focus is on student health rather than enforcement of the drinking age,” Art said. “I feel that we have a very sensible policy.”
Art said it isn’t clear why there has been a spike in ER visits due to alcohol poisoning this year, and Culbert said it’s too early in the year to compare the data with the numbers from other schools. But Art said that most of the students who have been sent to the hospital are freshmen who didn’t have experience with alcohol use in the past.
“First-years are just away from home and experimenting, and that’s understandable, a certain amount of that needs to go on in college,” Art said.
Art plans to launch more preventative efforts with the Student Counseling and Resource Service (SCRS).
“There are a lot of ways students can learn to drink more safely: tracking their drinking, looking out for their friends,” Culbert said. “There are always ways they can be more safe.”
“We just want to alert people that this can be a very dangerous thing,” Art said.
Art and Goff-Crews also noted a higher-than-normal number of sexual assault reports, but Art said it’s hard to tell if there’s a connection between the sexual assaults and alcohol abuse.
Students should nevertheless be aware of the role of alcohol use in some cases of sexual assault, Art said. “Alcohol use has a significant role in the things that come to the attention of the sexual assault dean on call. It’s part of the picture. Any case of sexual assault is one too many for us.”