At Harvard, alcohol treatment rises steeply

by Elisa Donnelly | 10/27/03 6:00am

At Harvard College, a dramatic rise in the number of students treated for alcohol poisoning has led administrators to create a new panel to examine and improve alcohol education and treatment. That trend, however, may have more to do with student responses to nights of bingeing than consumption itself.

In the 1998-1999 school year, Harvard reported that 18 students were treated for alcohol poisoning at Harvard University Health Services. In the 2002-2003 school year, however, 123 students were treated, indicating a notable spike in the number of students seeking medical help for alcohol abuse.

Similar reports at Dartmouth College, on the other hand, reflect a more constant trend in alcohol abuse instances.

Harvard Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict Gross, who acknowledged that the recent alcohol poisoning increase needed to be addressed, initiated the new panel at Harvard. The panel, named the Committee to Address Alcohol and Health, will discuss the health and safety problems associated with binge drinking.

"I don't think there has been an increase in alcohol abuse here," Gross told The Dartmouth. "What has gone up is the number of students checking into the health services overnight for alcohol abuse."

Gross said that over the course of the last 10 years, approximately 10 percent of the student body has engaged in "serious drinking" three or more times every two weeks. According to Gross, the number of students being treated for alcohol poisoning has risen recently because students "have understood that we will treat this as a medical problem, not a disciplinary one."

Survey results at Harvard show that 34.5 percent of males and 26.9 percent of females participate in "binge drinking," which is defined as drinking five or more drinks in one sitting, at least once every two weeks. Since September, Harvard University Health Services has already treated at least 24 students for alcohol poisoning, two of whom arrived in comas.

According to 2002 survey results at Dartmouth, 16 percent of students consider themselves to be abstainers, 36 percent of students say that they are light drinkers and 48 percent of students consider themselves to be heavier drinkers. On the average Saturday night, 50.1 percent of students said they consume one drink, 24.4 percent have five or more drinks and 10.1 percent have 10 or more drinks.

At Dartmouth, college administrators have also begun efforts to curb alcohol abuse. The College's Social Norms initiative, which collects and promotes data on student risk behaviors every spring, works to stop the hype about alcohol consumption and to present students with the facts of alcohol and drug usage on campus, according to the program website.

In recent years, College health officials have started an online education program, AlcoholEdu, to better teach undergraduates about alcohol.