PULLMAN, Wash. – Risky substance abuse behavior was reduced in freshmen who took the inaugural Booze, Sex and Reality Checks (BSRC) class in fall 2012, according to results of a Washington State University survey conducted in February.
Freshmen who took the class drank less, experienced less alcohol-related harm and had more accurate perceptions of social norms related to drinking at WSU when compared to freshmen from 2011 who had not attended BSRC.
“We are encouraged by these results following the first year of BSRC education,” said Patricia Maarhuis, coordinator of WSU Alcohol & Drug Counseling Assessment and Prevention Services (ADCAPS). “As a way to support the health and academic success of students, WSU will continue the BSRC class in fall 2013 and conduct another survey afterward.
“We recognize that, after only one year of BSRC, these results are preliminary,” she said, “but they are promising.
“WSU is among the first universities in the country to implement an intensive program over one week for a large number of incoming freshman focused on using small to medium groups and motivational interviewing techniques, as opposed to an individual online or a large auditorium-style program,” Maarhuis said. “If it is an effective best practice for educating students and keeping them safe, we want other universities to know about it as well.”
National research over the past decade has shown that WSU does not have a bigger problem with student substance abuse than other universities of similar size and demographics. However, WSU recognizes that students have many choices about how to spend their social time, said Maarhuis, and BSRC presents a variety of ways for them to reduce risk.
With the August 2012 BSRC class, WSU offered approximately 4,000 incoming freshman students the educational opportunity to explore what they expect and want from a university social experience, including substance use and sexual decision making. The February survey was taken by 2,204 respondents; 615 were freshmen, a return rate of 28 percent, representing about 15 percent of the freshman class on the Pullman campus.
In the 2012 freshman class, compared to the 2011 freshmen, a significantly higher proportion of students reported they do not drink at all: 34 vs. 28 percent. The 2012 freshmen were less likely to have had anything to drink in the past 30 days (24 vs. 34 percent) and less likely to have engaged in high risk drinking of five or more in a single sitting in the last two weeks (44 vs. 49 percent).
Significantly fewer of those who took the class experienced harm related to use of alcohol, including: blackouts (32 vs. 52 percent), unprotected sex (16 vs. 24 percent), injuring themselves (20 vs. 26 percent) or other (2 vs. 4 percent). And fewer regretted their actions (42 vs. 57 percent). Their assessment of social norms – the perception of how much and how often other students drink – was significantly more accurate than that of the freshman cohort of 2011.
Student comments confirm findings
Qualitative survey information supported the quantitative data. Students were asked, “Will you make any changes after attending BSRC?” They reported practicing protective strategies, engaging in positive bystander behavior, maintaining abstinence and drinking less.
For example, one student stated:
“I have honestly been drinking less. I don’t want my family to deal with consequences of massive drinking. When I do drink now, it’s ALWAYS beer so that I can take it slower and drink less.”
This student also reported taking care of friends:
“I’m not a big drinker. I guess I could say I pay attention to how many drinks my friends have.”
Another participant reported:
“I didn’t drink before and I’m still not drinking, so I guess it reassured my stance on waiting until I am of legal age.”
About the outreach
The BSRC program was implemented by WSU Counseling Services/ADCAPS as one of many occasions throughout the year when freshmen have the opportunity to address questions about substance use, including legal concerns. Students have many choices about how to spend their social time at WSU, and BSRC was geared to help students transition into the university social scene and culture.
The goal was to create a learning environment in which students can discuss their social expectations, make choices and understand that they have positive support from their peers and the broader campus community.
The “harm reduction approach” and a set of empirically based psychoeducational strategies, specifically designed for the college student population, are used in development and implementation of BSRC. The model accepts that college students choose to drink or not to drink for a variety of reasons.
Consequently, rather than just emphasizing legal concerns, the approach presents a variety of ways for students to reduce risk, and any steps toward reduced risk are considered beneficial.
Broader social experience
The BSRC survey data reflect the broader social and student health experience at WSU. As at any university, some students at WSU use alcohol and other substances.
However, National College Health Assessment (NCHA) research over the past decade shows that WSU does not have a bigger problem than other universities of similar size and demographics. Specifically, the research indicates that, when WSU students party, the majority tend to drink moderately or not at all.
In fact, a significant portion of the student population (about 20 percent) doesn’t drink or use other substances at all. And 62 percent of WSU students reported drinking between 0-4 drinks the “last time you partied,” which is lower than the national average of 67 percent (WSU NCHA, 2012; NCHA, 2012 spring).
In sum, what is known from research and talking with WSU students is that most students want to drink responsibly, practice safe sex or not drink or have sex at this point in their lives, Maarhuis said. WSU aims to create an environment where students can do that by letting them know they have choices and support.