It is 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening, yet the desolate basement typical of Leacock is alive and well as a train of eager, stressed, and worn students wait in line to enter Bar Des Arts (BDA)for warm beers and grilled cheeses. Many of them will be thankful for the impending end to the school week in spite of whatever looming assignments are yet to be finished. This phenomenon repeats across campus at other institutions that any good McGillian should know, from other such weekly faculty bars like Blues and 4à7 to the iconic Gert’s Bar open daily during the week. If there is one common denominator for on-campus student life at McGill the shared drinking culture is surely it.
However, this culture seems to present a number of problems in relation to how we, as students, are to navigate and balance life at a university such as McGill. On one hand, we are expected to be diligent, serious, and committed students, tasked with succeeding in a rigorous academic environment and upholding the scholastic reputation that McGill has sought to cultivate throughout its existence. On the other hand, we are expected to be able to let loose; to party just as hard as we work throughout the week. Indeed, many of us have encountered the “work-hard, play-hard,” attitude taken toward student culture at McGill. Yet when student life becomes inextricable from drinking, unhealthy habits are sure to arise among the student body.
The problem with a “work-hard, play-hard” attitude arises out of its encouragement of an unbalanced lifestyle and coping mechanism. Whether realized or not, such an attitude denotes drinking as a type of “counterbalance” to the normalcy of work. This prescribes a certain ratio in which one should “play” in accordance to how much they “worked.” Thus, the harder one works, the harder one should play. This frames the cure to work, as well as the stress that comes with it, as alcohol. The window in which one is to drink, however, is highly condensed which leads many to over-consumption in the form of binge-drinking, heavy-drinking, and dependency, many of which have adverse side effects. Ottawa Public Health defines binge-drinking as consuming four or more drinks in two hours for people assigned female at birth and five or more in two hours for those assigned male at birth. That being said, if one goes to BDA with $5 and drinks five cans of PBR within a two-hour period, they are binge-drinking, which may go unnoticed in the ambience of the crowd.
Research into the long-term effects of alcohol use for adolescents aged 10-19 shows that heavy drinking – where one engages in binge-drinking at a minimum of twice a month for at least a year – may hinder the process of synaptic refinement. Synaptic refinement is the process in which the neural connections in the brain are polished until only the most efficient connections remain. As such, halting this process thereby stunts memory, attention, executive decision-making, as well as other operations integral to regular functionality. Of course, drinking also has negative short-term effects. Alcohol makes one less aware, can elicit feelings of hopelessness or depression, and impedes rational choice-making. Those under the influence can be at greater risks of sexual assault, depressive or suicidal thoughts, as well as death by unintentional injury. At the university level, these problems are ever-present. A report by the Boston University School of Public Health found that more than 70,000 students aged 18-24 are victims of alcohol-related date-rape or sexual assault. In 2010, two students at Queen’s University died in alcohol-related injuries during Queen’s infamous St. Patrick’s Day bash, and in 2011, a student at Acadia University died from alcohol poisoning during orientation week.
Furthermore, university-backed drinking events pose problems in principle – that is problems in the messages they impose. Nowhere is this more clear than faculty frosh week. Faculty froshes are introductory experiences to McGill; they work to form our basic impressions about social life and as an apparatus to form meaningful connections and relationships with your peers. In being paired with upper year leaders, froshies engage in a process of corrective learning–a process of observation (whether conscious or not) from a modeled behavior followed by emulation. In consisting of various pre-games followed by an alcohol-centered event, froshies learn that connection with their peers manifests through the apparatus of drinking. This is truer for students who come from other provinces or countries with less relaxed laws around the minimum age to buy and consume alcohol legally; they are, for the first time, learning how to drink. Thus, all froshies who participate in the alcohol-centered frosh events learn – to some extent – that alcohol can serve as the key to social functionality. Should we, however, want this to be the case? Many would not.
The university is an authority. Insofar that it has power over the students, its facets – namely the sub-institutions it backs – do as well. This includes SSMU, Frosh, and the Faculty Bars, whose operations are tied to McGill as an institution. The power of student-run institutions within the university consists, partly, in organizing student culture on campus. Thus grounding student-life on campus in drinking-centered events encourages unhealthy behavior in a way that punishes deviation in the form of exclusion. Those who do not drink for health, religious, or other reasons, are excluded from these aspects of student-life. And while drinking-centered events do not comprise the whole of student-life on campus, one cannot deny that they make up a significant portion. Thus, when one cannot participate in this event, it can alienate them from their peers. As a community of students, we should not want to alienate our peers, but foster relations independent from substance-use.
McGill need not become a dry-campus to remedy this. Of course not all drinking is problematic. Nights out with friends can foster some of the most sentimental bonds. More importantly, frosh week, faculty bars, OAP, and Gert’s are fun. The problem arises when it is the main source of connection between students, and when information about thresholds wherein these activities become unhealthy habits is not wide-spread.
In short, one can circumvent the problems drinking-culture imposes – both practically and in principle – by awareness. Pay attention to how much you are drinking, and to whether it is the only way you are connecting with your peers.