Brenda Whiteside
Brenda Whiteside. Photo by Martin Schwalbe

For many university students, drinking is a part of life, but it doesn’t need to take over their lives. That’s why U of G’s alcohol task force is taking steps to ensure students drink responsibly and have access to resources when they need help.

The vast majority of Guelph students (89 per cent) drank at least one alcoholic beverage in the previous year, according to a report released by the task force, which surveyed more than 6,000 U of G students in late 2012.

“I wasn’t surprised by the number,” says Melanie Bowman, manager of wellness education at the Wellness Centre, adding that the proportion of U of G students who drink is similar to that of other universities. “I think it’s pretty typical of universities. Unfortunately, some students think it’s part of the university experience.”

Recent alcohol-related deaths of students at Canadian universities, and suggestions that drinking behaviour is changing, prompted U of G to re-examine its own alcohol policy, says Brenda Whiteside, associate vice-president (student affairs). “The survey of our students found that although there is drinking on campus, and some of it troubling, the pattern of drinking has not really changed much,” she says, referring to previous generations of students.

The report also identified what types of alcohol awareness strategies worked with students and which ones didn’t. Banning alcohol from residences or asking students to stop drinking isn’t realistic. “What we need to do is focus on how to get students to understand responsible drinking,” says Whiteside. Part of the problem is that “students don’t understand how to measure alcohol.”

She points to the popularity of “tallboy” cans, which contain 710 ml of beer instead of the standard 355 ml or 473 ml, and flavoured shots, which look small  but contain the same amount of alcohol as a large mixed drink.

Both Whiteside and Bowman commented on how students often overestimate how much alcohol their peers are drinking. This misperception can result in students drinking more than they’re comfortable with because they think it’s “normal.”

Getting student leaders involved in alcohol awareness messaging is one way to create positive role models, says Bowman, and that messaging will be ramped up during orientation week and other student-centred events. The University also hosts dry events for students who aren’t interested in drinking. “It’s OK to abstain,” says Bowman. “If a student is underage, then it’s illegal for them to be drinking.”

Living away from home for the first time may lead some students to engage in risky behaviour. “They’re in transition and experimenting and trying different things,” she says. Although most students don’t go on to develop a serious drinking problem, she adds, resources are available for those who need help. Information kits are available in the Wellness Centre as well as on their website.

Students who are concerned about a friend or a family member’s drinking habits can speak with a peer health educator at the Wellness Centre, a Student Support Network volunteer, residence life staff or Counselling Services. Students can also be referred to an addictions counsellor at Student Health Services. “There’s lots and lots of support,” says Bowman.

A small percentage of students surveyed in the report said they use alcohol to help them cope with anxiety, depression or stress. “That’s a really concerning point,” says Bowman, “because we know that on campuses there are growing mental health challenges among students.”

Using alcohol to deal with mental health concerns isn’t unique to university students, she adds, and it often makes the problem worse. The Wellness Centre offers programs for students to help them adopt a healthy lifestyle by getting enough sleep, following a healthy diet and exercise routine, and managing stress.

Bowman says U of G’s alcohol awareness messaging will focus on “protecting each other from alcohol related harms, whether it’s harm to themselves or harms to others. This includes sexual assault, getting into fights, vandalism; those sorts of things. We’re hoping to create a community of care.”

The task force also looked at best practices at other universities and will apply some of those practices at U of G. “It was reaffirming to find that Guelph is a leader in terms of best practice,” says Whiteside. “However, there is always room for improvement.”

One of those recommendations is a buddy system in which students are encouraged to look out for each other when they go to events where alcohol is being consumed. “When you go to a party with someone or downtown with someone,” says Whiteside, “you always check to see if they’re OK.”

U of G is developing its own bystander policy that would help students identify a problem situation and know how to deal with it. The goal is to give students the skills to help appropriately.

“We are a community here, and it’s the Gryphon way to have each other’s back,” says Bowman.

To view the report, “Alcohol Related Harms at the University of Guelph: Recommendations for Future Action,” visit