Time for student bodies to get serious about providing alcohol-free spaces

If student representatives are really serious about preventing alcohol abuse, they need to do more than run campaigns.

commentBANNERThe Union of Students in Ireland (USI) last month launched a campaign, Mental Drinking, which aims to change students’ attitudes towards alcohol. It has been welcomed as an alternative to the Diageo-funded Stop Out of Control Drinking campaign. It is striking that two campaigns launched almost simultaneously have chosen to take a similar slant on Irish drinking problems: that of providing an example for younger people. Stop Out of Control Drinking’s take on the issue is very provocative, while the tone of the Mental Drinking website is relatively unsensational. It details the effects of alcohol on young people and their development, with a focus on psychological and behavioural consequences, and asks students to examine the example they give to their younger cohorts. A banner across the homepage reads “You might be the only hero your younger brother or sister has”.

Most people see the necessity of efforts to tackle Ireland’s alcohol problem, but does it make sense to suggest to college students that they should lead the way in providing an example of healthy alcohol use to the next generation?Being careful to speak sensibly to young people about alcohol is to be commended, but ultimately it’s your actions, and those of society as a whole, that they’ll be replicating. Encouraging students to provide this example, considering they spend their time in arguably the most alcohol-saturated environments there are, seems a rather ironic move.

Corporate sponsorship

Drinks advertising and sponsorship are often cited as issues that need to be tackled in order to discourage alcohol-dependency. These things are powerful because they link the notions of specific events and alcohol consumption in people’s minds, making it difficult for people to go certain places without drinking. Drinks sponsorship is not allowed in most university contexts, but the positive and relentless association between all manner of events and drinking is entrenched in the social life of college.This does not just come about because the students themselves like drinking (although in most cases we do!).

There is a dearth of SU-sponsored social events that don’t follow the ‘get really drunk, and then drink some more’ model.

It is encouraged and legitimised in Trinity by continued support and funding by the SU and CSC of alcohol-centred events and free alcohol, and by other relevant bodies in other universities. When the siblings that the Mental Drinking website seeks to remind you of come to college, they will be invited to take part in five days of heavy drinking. Freshers’ Week will be their initiation into college life, their first chance to make friends and a promise of what the coming years have to bring. For some people, it will be a formative experience of Dublin, binge-drinking, and ‘going out’. There’s nothing wrong with going out all week and getting locked – but to expect that ethos not to shape how people see the social life of a college would be naive. When you couple this with the fact that so much of college’s events, even those without a social focus, provide free alcohol to guests and are indeed often advertised for on that basis, it seems like students are being set up to fail with regards to developing a healthy relationship with alcohol.

Importance of education

Campaigns that try to educate students about alcohol are not useless. When I checked out the drinks calculator on MentalDrinking.ie, I was genuinely surprised to find out how little I “should” be drinking to avoid damaging my health. But education and awareness only go so far –nutritional information has been included on food labels for years, but most of us still eat more than the recommended daily amounts of sugar, salt and fat, because of our eating habits and the fact that the food most readily available to us is not conducive to a wonderful diet. To further this analogy, suggesting to students that they stick to recommended drinking habits is a little like telling people to remember the food pyramid when they live in a town full of McDonald’s. People need to be empowered to make healthier decisions, rather than just being reminded that they should be doing so. Initiatives by students’ unions and other bodies to promote a healthier society should be encouraged – at least insofar as they aim to educate and support people to have a choice about their health choices, and not just to shame or coerce them into changing their lifestyles. It seems to me that students unions and other educational bodies have a lot of potential to enable people to be more in control of their drinking habits, due to the nature of influence they have over where and how young people spend their time. I just think a more grassroots, active approach by students unions themselves is where most of this potential lies.

 Anyone attending a talk or debate on mid-week is likely to be confronted with a table full of free wine on their way out the door. It’s this kind of drinking that caught me off guard in first year, and still does to some extent.

Central to the development of healthier drinking habits is the provision of alcohol free spaces. Ireland has a notable lack of such spaces, meaning social life is incredibly dominated by alcohol. Examples have popped up in Dublin lately in two locations: the Morning Gloryville morning raves invite customers to dance on coffee and smoothies alone, while the Happenings group organised an alcohol-free St Patrick’s Day event amid the madness of Temple Bar this year. Events such as this provide a space for people to meet, socialise and celebrate without alcohol having to come into question. This is an unusual opportunity for people to experience being sober without having to weigh up the choice with themselves, justify it to others or tolerate the drunkenness of others, all of which are common motivations for drinking when one might not do otherwise. The approach of the alcohol-free event might seem strict and a little dry. But in a city where people aren’t usually provided with a choice between spaces in which alcohol dominates, and ones in which it doesn’t, completely alcohol-free spaces can be an effective way in which to explore alternatives and get out of the social = drunk rut.

Lack of alcohol-free student events

The two actors best placed to take this initiative to Trinity are the SU and the Central Societies Committee (CSC). The Ents office has been criticised for its narrow and alcohol-focused event schedule, a criticism that it does not wholly deserve. In the past few years, a range of interesting musical events have taken place under the header ‘Ents Live’, and this year saw the introduction of the Trinity Film Festival. However, there is a dearth of SU-sponsored social events that don’t follow the “get really drunk, and then drink some more” model, something which Conor Parle mentioned in his Ents campaign as something he would like to change were he elected. There’s a lot of potential within this office to experiment with small and large-scale, alcohol-free events which would be visible to the whole of the student community.

The CSC is the other body with influence over college social life, as it organises funding and support for all (non-athletic) societies and sponsors special weeks such as 4th week, in which societies can apply funding to put on large events with a view to attracting new members. It is the CSC that funds the free alcohol societies have at their events. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, and helps to promote a lively, casual social atmosphere on weekday evenings. It does make alcohol difficult to escape though, as anyone attending a talk or debate on mid-week is likely to be confronted with a table full of free wine on their way out the door. It’s this kind of drinking that caught me off guard in first year, and still does to some extent. Drinking two small glasses of wine at each of two evening events adds up to around eight UK units, and that’s before you’ve gone to a pub, club or party. This makes it difficult for people to monitor their drinking and strengthens the mental link between alcohol and any kind of socialisation. Something the CSC could do to promote a less alcohol-centric atmosphere on campus would be to introduce a week in which societies could receive extra funding to put on alcohol-free evening events, and regular non-alcoholic events such as Stitch & Bitch would be promoted. If it seemed like it wouldn’t be too unpopular, a completely alcohol-free society week could be introduced.

This is just one of the ways in which students could be encouraged and helped to develop healthier drinking habits, without resorting to prescriptive or patronising methods. Healthy drinking campaigns can be hard to take seriously, in part because there is a feeling that everybody knows that alcohol is bad for you. Providing an environment in which that knowledge can be used to inform decisions is what the USI and individual SUs should be focusing on.

Illustration: Nadia Bertaud