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Tuesday, November 29, 2022
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UW-Madison has a binge drinking problem

UW students feel the campus is an environment where drinking feels like a social necessity.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is consistently ranked among the top “party schools” in the country, a qualification that often goes hand-in-hand with a school’s drinking culture. That is certainly true at UW-Madison, the nation’s number one school for beer consumption, and many students feel this reflected in its atmosphere.

According to an undergraduate student who chose to remain anonymous, being a sober individual at UW-Madison can be challenging and othering. The university is so synonymous with heavy drinking that she said she has been asked many times why she would choose to attend it as a non-drinker.

“I have had people pressure me to drink [... and] pry excessively about why I don’t,” the student said. “I feel you can definitely exist at UW as someone who is sober, but be prepared to be shunned or mocked for sure.”

Social Drinking Culture  

According to a 2016 study published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal, 65% of freshman students reported drinking — but that number increased dramatically in the years following, with nearly 85% of sophomores and juniors reporting themselves to be drinkers. 

This seems to indicate something many UW students reported: an environment in which drinking feels like a social necessity. In 2015, UHS first conducted a study called the Color of Drinking, in which 90% of students described the university’s drinking culture as negative and many reported feeling pressured to drink.

The study also found that of those who were considering leaving the university, 20% of students of color and 30% of white students reported the alcohol climate to be the driving factor in that decision. 

Undergraduate student Ingrid Szocik said her abstention from drinking “made [her] feel like [she] didn’t belong at this university, in this city.” Because of the alcohol-centric culture, Szocik stated that “[she] could not picture [herself] living [in Madison] long-term.”

Jenny Damask is University Health Services’ assistant director of high-risk drinking prevention. She urged students who do drink to examine their own habits in order to “work towards a healthier, more inclusive environment.”

“It becomes really difficult to navigate if everyone feels like they’re connecting over this alcohol-fueled environment,” said Damask, adding that building a community sober students can comfortably navigate requires drinkers to examine their relationship with alcohol and how they behave when under the influence.

Kaitlyn Andrews is a sophomore who also chooses to be sober, and she said she has rarely been pressured to drink. However, when attending social events where others are drinking, she said being sober makes her feel that she will “never be a full part of the group.”

In UHS’s 2017 Color of Drinking study, 42% of students interviewed were found to be high-risk drinkers, compared to 27% of undergraduate students nationwide. High-risk drinking contributes to alcohol-related crime — as of 2017, UW-Madison ranked eighth nationwide for quantity of drinking arrests.

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The state of Wisconsin itself leads the nation in alcohol abuse, with its rate of adult binge-drinking 50% higher than the rest of the country. A 2021 study found that every single county in Wisconsin qualified as a “heavy-drinking” county, and of the top 50 heaviest-drinking counties in the country, 41 were in Wisconsin.

Connor King cited UW-Madison’s drinking culture as the main reason he chose to drop out of the university last year. According to King, even being a purely social drinker can still equate to two or three nights of hard drinking a week, and it wasn’t until he “left the university that I realized how unhealthy, yet common, these habits are.”

King said that incoming students are in vulnerable positions, likely experiencing anxiety and a sense of urgency to make friends. 

“With a drinking culture as pervasive as UW-Madison’s, students may lean on substance abuse both as a means of comfort and as a way to find friends through the social scene,” said King.

The normalization of alcohol abuse led King to develop unhealthy drinking habits, which eventually became “full-fledged alcoholism and substance abuse of other kinds,” rendering it impossible for him to continue his academic career, he said.

“While this is a more extreme example of the damage that the drinking culture at UW-Madison can inflict, I am not an outlier,” said King. “There are many other stories like mine. It is so easy for students to be lulled into these habits of alcohol abuse that they don’t realize it’s a problem until it’s too late.”

Cost of Binge Drinking

A raid conducted on a State Street bar earlier this year provided a shocking demonstration of the proportion of drinkers who are underage — of the 143 people present, only six were of legal drinking age.

Unhealthy drinking habits correlate with poor mental health. Damask said alcohol abuse often stems from underlying mental health issues that need to be addressed first in order for one to recover.

Damask emphasized the ways in which different issues and identities intersect, saying that “it’s really hard to look at things in a vacuum.” She urges students with concerns about either mental health or substance use to look at how their relationship to each relates to the other.

In situations where students are illegally drinking but need medical help, the University of Wisconsin Police Department (UWPD) has a policy in place called Medical Amnesty through Responsible Actions. According to a first-year student who chose to remain anonymous, the amnesty policy doesn’t always save concerned friends from legal repercussions. 

This student said he was with a group when one of his friends began exhibiting symptoms of alcohol poisoning, so he asked a passerby to call 911. When UWPD arrived on the scene, they told him he was not eligible for amnesty because he hadn’t placed the call.

The anonymous student said his takeaway from the event was “that calling for help with someone with alcohol poisoning will cost you about $400” in fines and associated fees. He added that “the school is not transparent whatsoever about this when talking about the amnesty policy.”

UWPD could not provide comment on this incident, but referred to the guidelines of the amnesty policy. The department neglected to respond to questions regarding UW-Madison’s levels of alcohol abuse and how a safer campus community can be created.

Whereas some students, like Andrews, don’t feel explicitly pressured to drink, others see that pressure as implicit in the culture at UW-Madison. King expressed that “there’s not usually any pressure to drink from friends, as it’s more of an unspoken thing.” He found that “if I wanted to spend time with my friends, it would likely be drinking.”

The monetary toll of heavy drinking is also significant, and it means that indulging in the school’s drinking culture may require either financial privilege or sacrifices. Gus Wehrs, who completed undergrad at UW-Madison in 2021 and is currently pursuing a Master’s, expressed his resentment for the privileged “tailgate game-day culture.” 

According to Wehrs, who said he worked 40 to 50 hours a week to make ends meet during his undergraduate career, “being able to buy football tickets, grill out [and] pound cheap cases of beer is a luxury.”

Therese Wright started at UW-Madison in 1981, when the drinking age in Wisconsin was 18. She emphasized that though it was common for undergraduates to go to bars and parties, binge drinking was not common.

“In my experience it was a rare occurrence that I would see someone binge drink to excess, to the point of vomiting or passing out,” Wright said. 

Wright attributes this to the fact that “alcohol was available and accessible” at that time, whereas “today it seems as though students will abuse alcohol when they are able to get access to it.”

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