Tom Bannard moved into his first-year dorm with a suitcase full of liquor. Almost from the start, he recalls, he was a daily drinker, but he managed to keep his grades up. He didn’t see a problem.
He continued to drink and use drugs every day until his fourth year—when an arrest spurred him to seek help off Grounds. After four months in treatment, he was welcomed back to UVA by his dean to finish his degree, but he worried about protecting his sobriety. “The culture at UVA was very supportive of drinking as long as you could keep your stuff together,” Bannard (Col ’08) says. “If you could party and keep a façade of things going on OK on the outside, that was good—that was what you were supposed to do.”
But for students like Bannard who uncover a real addiction amid the college party scene or for those who perilously binge drink, the decision to change tends to come only after a tragedy or other serious consequence. This fall, as students return to Charlottesville, UVA’s Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention is promoting a new effort called BASICS to curb binge drinking and is expanding its existing Hoos in Recovery program to support students in recovery for addiction.
Data, Not Judgment
Under BASICS, students take an online survey and then have a 30-minute follow-up meeting to discuss their drinking habits. BASICS—or Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students—is an evidence-based program used nationwide and implemented at UVA in fall 2014 as a collaboration between the Gordie Center and the School of Medicine.
Some students are referred to BASICS by their resident advisers, others by administrators. Most are encouraged but not mandated to go. “I see students who have wound up in the emergency room, or this might even be their second ER visit,” says Sean Sembrowich, a UVA nurse practitioner and the clinician who meets with students under BASICS.
The key to BASICS is a nonconfrontational approach, offering objective data on a student’s drinking habits in graphs and statistical form, rather than a lecture. “When you’re working with youth, if I sit here and say: ‘Listen to me, alcohol is really bad for you. It’s not good for your brain. It’s not good for your health. And you have a family history of alcoholism, so you’re more likely to be an alcoholic; you need to stop,’ their reaction is ‘La la la la la la,’” says UVA psychiatrist Dr. Nassima Ait-Daoud Tiouririne, imitating fingers plugging her ears. “Students say: ‘I don’t have a problem; everybody drinks. I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s just that I got caught.’”
Tiouririne, who directs UVA’s Center for Leading Edge Addiction Research, says BASICS diminishes denial through a practice known as motivational interviewing.
During confidential one-on-one meetings, students review personalized survey results and can see how their alcohol use compares with that of other UVA students. “It’s not for me to be the lecturer, telling people what is good and what is bad, but to help them take an active role in deciding whether it is right,” Tiouririne says. “We do it through data. We look at the liver function. We look at their drinking [amount]. They aren’t as defensive and [feel] like an active member of this process.”
Susie Bruce (Col ’89, Educ ’91), director of the Gordie Center, says long-term research shows that BASICS is effective at reducing drinking in college students. So far 58 UVA students have gone through BASICS, and the Gordie Center is pushing to reach its goal of including at least 300 students this year. The program is free for any student unless it’s mandated as a sanction from the University Judiciary Committee; then the fee is $50.
College Culture and Hazardous Drinking
BASICS is the latest addition to numerous Gordie Center programs aimed at preventing tragedies such as the death of Gordie Bailey, for whom the center is named. In 2004 Bailey was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Colorado who died of an alcohol overdose during fraternity hazing. His mother and stepfather, Leslie and Michael Lanahan (Darden ’74), founded the Gordie Foundation, which later merged with UVA’s Center for Alcohol & Substance Education to form the Gordie Center.
Tragedies like Bailey’s have occurred across the country. At UVA, fourth-year honors student Leslie Baltz died on the day of the last home football game in 1997 after she became heavily intoxicated and fell down a flight of stairs.
Eighteen years have passed since Baltz died—enough time for a new incoming class of first-years to grow up and arrive in Charlottesville. In that time, UVA’s “hazardous drinking” rate has declined somewhat—and the criteria have changed. In 1997, when UVA defined hazardous drinking as five or more drinks in a two-hour period, the rate of students drinking hazardously was 51 percent. In 2006 the definition was changed to match the federal definition, lowering the threshold for women to four or more drinks. The 2015 rate was 42 percent. This is particularly encouraging because of the stricter current standard, Bruce says. “If we had used the 2015 definition in 1997, the hazardous drinking rate would have been higher than 51 percent.”
Bruce says hazardous drinking at UVA shows a much steeper decline than at other institutions nationwide. In 2003, 57.9 percent of UVA undergrads reported hazardous drinking, about 20 percent more than national numbers at the time. In a 2013 survey at UVA, the hazardous drinking rate had dropped to 37 percent, while national surveys list a range of between 32.7 and 42.8 percent.
The Gordie Center spreads the message to students that their peers drink less than one might think. The UVA Spring 2013 Health Survey found that on a typical Saturday night, 59 percent of undergraduates consume three or fewer alcoholic drinks. And data from surveys at UVA show that over time, the students who choose not to drink at all on a Saturday night has increased, going from 26 percent in 2006 to 35 percent in 2013. The percentage who drink in more dangerous ways (seven or more drinks in a night) declined and then leveled off, going from 21 percent in 2006 to 13.6 percent in 2008, then back up to 16 percent in 2013.
Policy and law have an impact on student behaviors. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program, which surveys freshmen annually about their drinking habits as they are entering college, shows that in 1978, when the drinking age in Virginia had in recent years been lowered to 18 for beer and wine, 85.1 percent of UVA first-years reported drinking beer in the past year. In 2013, 40.9 percent of first-years reported drinking beer in the past year. The steepest decline in drinking came after the drinking age was raised to 21 in 1985, dropping by almost a quarter by 1996. “Incoming first-year students drink less now than at any time in the past 30 years,” Bruce says.
But one aspect that continues to grab the attention of researchers is that college-bound high school students are less likely to drink alcohol than peers who are not bound for college, but the number flips; in subsequent years, college students drink more than their peers who are not in college. According to the 2013 Monitoring the Future survey, an annual national report from the University of Michigan that studies young adults’ use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, 40 percent of college students report having been drunk in the past 30 days, compared with 34 percent of peers who are not in college.
Away at college, 17- to 22-year-olds, whose brains are still developing (parts including impulse control and judgment), face a culture that glorifies alcohol and often ignores the downsides—embarrassing drunken texts, broken bones, arrests or worse, Bruce says.
One alumna in recovery for alcoholism recalls her college drinking. “There were a lot of people who thought my drunkenness was great, part of the party scene.” She relished the attention, she says: “I thought it was hilarious—everybody in my hall called me ‘Alkie’ as a nickname.”
The alumna, who was in the Class of 2003 and asked to be identified only by her initials, C.C., in accordance with Alcoholics Anonymous’ guidelines, says alcohol was the center of her life during her first semester, until an arrest for underage drinking and the consequent night in jail changed her path.
Her RA sought help, and her dean allowed her to take a medical withdrawal for the rest of the semester to seek treatment. When she returned in the spring, the dean connected her with ADAPT—UVA’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Team—and she became a peer educator at the University.
“I don’t think I ever would’ve gotten sober this young if it weren’t for the support I got at UVA and from my family,” C.C. says. “My whole life experience is built on the fact that I got sober in college, so it’s so clear to me that was a critical juncture in time.
“I was lucky enough that I didn’t have a family yet. I didn’t have a job yet. I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities yet that I could have lost,” says C.C., now a mother of three who went on to get her doctorate and become a professor at a research university. “Getting sober completely altered my sense of self and certainly my career trajectory.”
That’s the idea behind Hoos in Recovery, UVA’s social support network for students in recovery for addiction. One of its earliest members was Tom Bannard.
With the support of his dean, Bannard returned to UVA in 2008 to finish his degree. One day, after a psychology class that focused on treatment and recovery, he identified himself as being in recovery to his professor, Kevin Doyle.
Doyle, now an assistant professor at Longwood University, was developing Hoos in Recovery at the time and encouraged Bannard to come to a meeting. That invitation proved pivotal. “It gave me an instant group of people to hang out with, and it gave me a sense that while not all of the University is supportive and understanding, there was at least an element of that,” Bannard says. “There was a faculty member who cared—that was a big deal—somebody with some sort of authority who understood. "
Hoos in Recovery started small, with meetings every other week supported by the University’s Parents Committee and the Gordie Center. But two years ago, with a $10,000 grant from the Transforming Youth Recovery initiative of the Stacie Mathewson Foundation, a nonprofit that funds academic programs for young adults recovering from alcohol and drug addictions, the group was able to increase meetings to weekly and add more social events, such as alcohol-free tailgates and bowling nights, all of which will continue this year.
The group is part of a national movement: Following the lead of established models at Rutgers and Texas Tech universities, other schools are developing programs with the help of the Mathewson Foundation’s seed grants.
Hoos in Recovery now has about 150 members (including alumni) on its confidential Listserv and typically five to 15 students in attendance at meetings, but Bruce, of the Gordie Center, says there’s much work to be done to reach everyone in need. In the UVA Spring 2013 Health Promotion Survey, 1.8 percent of undergraduates surveyed self-reported an alcohol or other drug use problem. This extrapolates to 260 UVA undergrads in need of intervention, treatment and recovery support.
An additional 1.4 percent of students from that survey reported that they were unsure if they had addiction problems or not. Attending a single lunch meeting could be the first step toward recovery. “A lot of times, they’ll hear people talking about the same things they’re going through,” Bruce says. “It makes them feel less alone.”
Bannard, who earned degrees in history and African-American studies, is now an addictions counselor and manages operations for the largest emergency shelter in Richmond. In April, Richmond’s Style Weekly newspaper named him one of its “Top 40 Under 40” for his work helping that city’s homeless population. Now 31, he is also studying for his MBA degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he has helped launch Rams in Recovery.
Bannard emphasizes the importance of institutional support for students with addictions. “Those are the kids,” he says, “who are most likely to die on your campus.”