| Just one drink?

Clinical director at the MUHC Addictions Unit discusses alcohol usage in university

Like a four ton elephant stampeding down a narrow corridor, finals are seen as an impending and inescapable doom by some. Seeking solace in this difficult period, some university students are driven into the arms of those bewitching sirens of our modern age – alcohol and substance abuse. Gail Gauthier, clinical director at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Addictions Unit, provides insight on the alcohol use of university students.

The McGill Daily: How much alcohol is enough for university students?
Gail Gauthier: If we look at…a healthy adult female, the guidelines [put out by Health Canada] would advise not to go over nine drinks per week. Some of the US health guidelines…advise as low as seven.
That doesn’t mean in one night. A lot of what happens in university…is binge drinking. If we’re looking at nine drinks per week, it would be advisable to separate them out. For females, the maximum amount of three to four drinks per episode. For males, it’s 14 per week, also with a maximum of four each time.
Alcohol is metabolized in males and females very differently. Alcohol hits females more quickly than males. Males are able to excrete it faster and have enzymes to metabolize it. Females tend to take longer time to excrete the alcohol. What happens with binge drinking is that students may be okay with two or three drinks, but, all of sudden, the alcohol that hasn’t been removed is accumulated and can lead to alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning can occur in somebody that drinks a large amount in one night and hasn’t been drinking for days or weeks.

MD: What are some long-term effects of alcohol consumption in adolescence?
GG: [Since] the brain does not fully develop until early adulthood…the ability to control emotion, judgment, impulse control, and decision-making may be permanently impaired. For those who start to consume alcohol at a young age, it’s harder for them to stop. If they continue to use substances, it is more likely that they will…use alcohol in a dependent manner in comparison to being able to modulate their use.

MD: What do you think about the accessibility of alcohol in Montreal, and especially around campus?
GG: In the point of view of working as a therapist at the Addictions Unit, we get young people coming for therapy. We encourage people to take a break from drinking to let everything re-stabilize. Since alcohol is a depressant, there are people with mood and anxiety problems. We encourage those people to stop drinking for a month, but it’s really hard around campus because they want to…socialize, and so much of that is based on drinking. Most university campuses have a lot of alcohol on site.

MD: What kind of treatments or therapeutic advice would you give?
GG: Treatment paths depend on [the patient’s] severity. We categorize them into abuse or dependence. Abuse would be binge drinking or drinking in a way that it interferes with functioning – not doing well in school, missing classes, feeling hung over. Alcohol abuse patients are able to not drink for a few days, but the cycle repeats.
Alcohol dependent patients are not actually just abusing alcohol, but they have gotten into the pattern of having to drink every day. People do not have to have physical dependence with tolerance and withdrawal to be dependent. Dependence means that the alcohol is on your mind a lot of the time and takes priority over other more important things – relationships, classes, studying. For these people, we recommend the option of not drinking for a month or so. If people aren’t ready, we recommend them to cut down. We talk about friends who don’t drink as much so that the peer support can have a positive effect. We also encourage them to stay [at a social event involving alcohol] for an hour instead of three to four hours. There are other common sense things, such as eating first, drinking some water or juice in between alcoholic beverages.
Those who have become physically dependent with daily drinking, withdrawal symptoms, and tolerance, may need help with medication or they may have to take a leave from school and sometimes consider entering an inpatient treatment for a period of time.

MD: In your opinion, what can be done to raise awareness of alcohol abuse or dependence among young adults?
GG: I think a lot has to be done with changing the university culture. What is having a good time? When you listen to the music, a large part of it is about drinking heavily as well. There has got to be alternative things to do that are available to people [that are] not so heavily loaded with alcohol. A lot of the time, university students are away from home and under a lot of stress and pressure. I think the university campus could be a positive environment offering alternate activities and support other than partying with alcohol. I think messages that can get out there and make each other be aware of alcohol abuse could be very useful.

MD: Could you tell us some services that are available for youth to overcome alcohol dependence or abuse?
GG: McGill Mental Health and University Health Service Centres would be great places to start. For students who already have some concerns…just talking about if it’s possible to decrease the amount of alcohol, set up other activities, [and get] support from people who are not drinking as much…a few sessions to discuss about these openly can really help. In addition to [the Addictions Unit], where people come when they need specialized attention, there is Foster Pavilion, which has a rehabilitation program. It’s for English-speaking people, primarily. Resources on the French-speaking side, there are quite a few. Centre Dollard-Cormier is very large for both out- and in-patients. For detox, there is Saint-Luc Hospital. If you look up the Ministry of Social Services and look through region six, where Montreal belongs, you’ll find a listing of services. The Drug and Alcohol Referral line (514- 527- 2626) is a service where people can call to get more information about resources.

– Compiled by Rachael Kim

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