Binge drinking continues to be a rising problem affecting college students across the nation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), describes binge drinking as “drinking 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more drinks for women in about 2 hours, or a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings BAC, blood alcohol content, to 0.08 gram percent or above (CDC, 2018).” Today binge drinking has become a major health concern for college age students. On average, in the United States, 1,825 college students between the ages of 18-24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries or from alcohol poisoning (NIH, 2018).
Undergraduate students (freshmen-seniors), ages 18-25, are a population affected by this problem. Specifically all undergraduate students, both male and female, of all ethnicities are affected. Attending a university results in a change of lifestyle for students, from less parental control, new surrounding environment, as well as an increase in stress. For many students, college can be both exciting and stressful. Many students when faced with a struggle or life problem, turn to binge drinking as a way to cope and escape from the issue at hand. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, when studying the prevalence of binge drinking amongst this population, 37.9 percent of college students ages 18–22 reported binge drinking in the past month compared with 32.6 percent of others of the same age (SAMHSA, 2015). Studies have shown a link between stress in college students and the increase in binge drinking tendencies.
When examining the issue of binge drinking, there are many consequences associated with not addressing the problem. As this behavior continues to increase among college students, there are many adverse health effects that begin to become an issue. Consequences associated with this issue include physical, legal, emotional, social and cognitive issues as well as an increase in the likelihood of having an alcohol use disorder (Kriger et al., 2018). Significant literature and studies have examined health harms associated with binge drinking, such as alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related blackouts and injury, involvement in car crashes and fatalities, alcohol-related physical and sexual assault, increased risk for sexually transmitted infection, and problems at school or work (White & Hingson, 2014). Other alarming consequences include physical and sexual assaults as well as date rape. Some consequences are directly associated with academic behavior and risk. About 1 in 4 college students report academic consequences from drinking, including missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall (NIH, 2018). These consequences can be serious and/or life threatening and can affect a person for the rest of their life.
The issue of binge drinking is relevant for social work inquiry. This issue continues to affect many college students across universities and campuses in the United States. As social workers, it is important to help provide education and interventions to students who are already participating, or at risk to participate in binge drinking. It is important to understand the drive and motive behind why students participate in this behavior as well as look at quantitatively how many students across all grade levels and ethnic backgrounds are taking part in this social behavior. Students are experiencing stress for many reasons throughout their college years. It is important to further explore this relationship stress has on binge drinking and how social workers can advocate for education, workshops on topics such as stress management and alcohol consumption, and policies changes that will benefit all college students.
Recent studies have been conducted that display a correlation between stress and binge drinking in college students. In research on alcohol, drug, and psychiatric disorders, the term “stress” often is understood to indicate any experience denoting adversity (Dohrenwend, 2000). Stress exposures consist of external stimuli that are threatening or harmful; elicit fear, anxiety, anger, excitement, and/or sadness; and are negative in impact and outcome (Sinha, 2008). When the perceived stress is viewed as having debilitating outcomes, it may be associated with potential risk for maladaptive coping behaviors leading to onset of substance use and related problems that are heightened during the college period (Tavolacci et al., 2013). A study conducted by Chen and Feeley (2015), Backer-Fulghum et al. (2011), Wrye and Pruitt (2017), as well as Armeli et al. (2010), researched how levels of stress in undergraduate students affect levels of binge drinking.
In the study conducted by Chen and Feeley (2015), stress was measured by using a five items from the Perceived Stress Scale compared to the number of reported days of binge drinking. The results showed that students seem to turn to binge drinking as a way to cope with stress. The study stated this is due to the fact that when students are stressed out, they drink alcohol as a way to forget their problems, as a momentary relief from the daily stress they experience (Chen & Feeley, 2015). This finding is consistent with results from a longitudinal study in which researchers found a link between stress and alcohol consumption (Russell, Cooper, Frone, & Peirce, 1999). In the study conducted by Backer-Fulghum et al. (2011) reported that, among a sample of 405 undergraduate college students, using a structural equation model, increased stress was found to be linked to more alcohol related problems. This includes alcohol use or dependence in emerging adulthood as high levels of stress among college students results in students to drink or binge drink in order to cope. The study conducted by Wrye and Pruitt (2017), examined the levels of binge drinking and the association of stress in 286 undergraduates. A quantitative study was conducted by incorporating survey-administered questions related to binge drinking recommended by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (Wyre and Pruitt, 2017). Based on responses they separated the students into two categories, binge drinkers and non-binge drinkers. Questions were then asked specifically about the perception of binge drinking on campus to each of those groups. The study utilized a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to explore the relationship between binge drinking behaviors among college students and the attitudes related to this behavior more thoroughly. The study found that many students perceived binge drinking to be a problem on their campus and perceived their peers to consume an average of 6.21 drinks per drinking session (Wyre and Pruitt, 2017). Many stated one of the main reasons college students participate in binge drinking is due to being stressed out and turning to drinking as a way to help them relax.
The study conducted by Armeli et al. (2010) examined 575 undergraduate students and used both retrospective and daily reporting methods in their longitudinal study. Participants completed the Motivations for Alcohol Scale as well as the Beck depression Inventory and State-Trait Anxiety Inventory to help examine the correlation between their levels of stress and binge drinking behaviors (Armeli et al., 2010). Through their research they acknowledge that the problems of binge and heavy drinking can be multi-determined (Armeli et al., 2010). The study’s findings did show more positive associations between negative affect and drinking among high social enhancement individuals, compared to others, reflecting the use of alcohol during anxiety periods of elevated stress due to a result of reduction in self-control (Armeli et al., 2010). Binge drinking in a college population is suggested to be a function of not having alternative coping skills to deal with the given stressors in their lives. These studies support the idea that there is a correlation between binge drinking and stress in undergraduate college students and can help pave the way for further research and discoveries.
This research looking at the relationship between stress and binge drinking and college students can be grounded in the social learning theory. The social learning theory emphasizes the role of societal influences, and the impacts they hold on an individual (Akers, 2011). In the social learning theory, a behavior is learned from one’s environment through observational learning. This can be observed with family members, peers, or themselves. Individuals may learn from others and model their behaviors as it pertains to drinking. The social learning theory recognizes that underlying reasons may cause a student to frequently engage in risky drinking activity (Akers, 2011). The individual may possess an abundance of stressors in their lives or come from a problematic background. When it comes to a student feeling stressed they may turn to alcohol, specifically binge drinking as a way to handle the stressors in their lives. They may begin to attribute drinking as the only way to deal with these issues. This in turn, leads to students becoming dependent on alcohol as the only mechanism to handling their stress and escape their problems. Understanding how individuals are affected by their society around them, including peers, teachers, family members, as well as an individual’s specific stressors, will further enhance the understanding of the dynamics associated with the relationship between stress and binge drinking among college students. The purpose of this research study is to explore the relationship stress has on binge drinking in college students to gain a better understanding as to how social workers can continue to work to address this issue and provide the proper resources and interventions. It is important to understand through the social learning theory, how individual students begin to participate in this risky behavior and what societal influences are associated.