Center for Health and Behavior researcher finds short-term interventions can reduce college students’ alcohol use
Center for Health and Behavior researcher finds short-term interventions can reduce college students’ alcohol useJanuary 15, 2004Cynthia J. Moritzcjmoritz@syr.edu
Reducing students’ risky behavior when it comes to alcohol doesn’t have to be a long, complicated process, according to research being done by Prof. Kate Carey of the Center for Health and Behavior in the psychology department. Her work shows that a single intervention can make a difference in students’ behavior, and that the change can be a lasting one.
Carey, along with co-researchers Michael Carey and Stephen Maisto and several graduate and undergraduate students, has received $1.5 million from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) to fund the five-year project. The NIAAA is part of the National Institutes for Health.
In this research, students in Psychology 205, mostly freshmen and sophomores, are screened to determine their drinking behavior. Those who exhibit high-risk behaviors are invited to participate in the study. The goal is to identify students who drink at levels that could place them at risk for negative consequences. Nearly 400 students are surveyed each semester, and about half of those engage in risky drinking.
“We’re not picking people who have been identified as problem drinkers,” Carey says. “We are trying to intervene before that point.”
Students are randomly assigned to receive either a one-session motivational intervention or no intervention. Those who are assigned to the intervention group each receive one individual session with a counselor, who discusses their drinking behavior with them.
The first step in such sessions is to give the student some perspective on where their drinking patterns fall in relation to others. “Many of the heavier-drinking students are comparing themselves only to their friends when it comes to drinking,” says Carey, “and they may not realize that their group actually drinks quite a bit more than most students.”
The next step is to discuss the costs and benefits of students’ current drinking behaviors. “We’re not explicitly trying to eliminate underage drinking,” Carey says, but rather encouraging students to think about how their drinking behavior is affecting their life.
This assessment includes the positive as well as the negative, Carey says, because students have reasons for drinking as they do. The upside of drinking includes such things as helping the student to unwind, helping them meet dates and opening up social opportunities. The downside might include such things as not feeling healthy, getting into potentially dangerous situations or missing classes.
If such an assessment was done in a group, the dynamic might work against students admitting any doubts about their drinking, Carey says. Doing it in an individual session “gives students the freedom to explore some of their doubts.”
The third thing the counselors do is help students develop personalized reasons for wanting to change their drinking behaviors, and help them devise strategies for cutting back. Carey says some students have heard these strategies before, but will only consider using them when they are ready to make a change.
Followup studies are done after one month, six months and one year. They show that the drinking of the students receiving the intervention and those who don’t tends to decrease with time. However, those who have had the intervention tend to reduce their drinking more. One of the first studies of such interventions indicated that reductions in drinking still continued as much as four years after the intervention.
Carey is now in discussions with the Division of Student Affairs to see how her findings could be incorporated into their programs. She also shares information with Associate Dean of Students Dessa Bergen-Cico, who heads the University’s Substance Abuse Prevention and Health Enhancement Program.
“Students come to college with already well-developed drinking behaviors, then the external restraints they’ve had in high school are removed,” Carey says. “We’re trying to help them develop their own sense of control.”