Alcoholism not always fueled by underage drinking

By Sharon Wittke

High-risk drinking can be an acute problem for some students, but it’s not as pervasive as it’s perceived to be, said Jason Gillman, director of the university’s Wellness Center.

He said it’s time to focus on solutions rather than on problems concerning underage drinking.

Students who drink under the age of 21 aren’t necessarily problem drinkers but tend to be labeled as such, Gillman said, by law enforcement and social agencies that deal with alcohol addiction.


Only seven percent of the students at the university experience academic problems caused by alcohol use, he said.

Alcohol use isn’t a serious problem for most students attending the university despite perceptions fueled by the media, he said.

Movies such as “Animal House” have helped create an aura of tolerance and expectation, he said, particularly among college students.

Gillman said surveys conducted by the university indicate students think drinking plays a large role in college life.

“Ninety-eight percent of our entering freshmen think alcohol is central to the life of an SIU student,” he said.

He said health educators and counselors need to redefine the norm and emphasize that most students who choose to drink behave in a responsible and mature manner, even if they are under the legal drinking age of 21.

“The problem with age 21 is that people are adults at 18,” Gillman said. “We give them responsibility to make choices around something like military service, but we don’t give them the choice about alcohol.”


He said most professionals who work in the field of addiction are adamant that people who begin drinking before age 21 are more likely to develop a dependence on alcohol.

Gillman said studies indicate the use of alcohol during adolescence and early adulthood can alter the development of the brain and create a tendency toward alcohol dependency later in life.

Gillman said he has mixed feelings about the legal drinking age.

He said he understands the rationale for the drinking age law and also realizes the human brain is still developing during early adulthood.

But Gillman said the age at which the brain is fully developed varies for every individual.

“So it’s not like on your twenty-first birthday, you cash in your brain change card and you’re done,” he said.

Some organizations, such as the Amethyst Initiative, a group of university and college presidents and chancellors, support lowering the legal drinking age, Gillman said.

Gillman said a potential problem with lowering the drinking age to 18 or 19 is that drinking among high school students might increase.  They would have better access to alcohol because they’re likely to be friends with older teens who could purchase alcohol legally, he said.

He said the perception of alcohol use is the No. 1 determining factor of whether a person under age 21 is going to consume high-risk levels of alcohol.

“We need to think about alcohol use in a different way,” he said.

Instead of focusing so much attention on heavy episodic drinking, also known as binge drinking, Gillman said he would rather see resources allocated to educating students on how to drink responsibly.

Gillman said people between the ages of 18 and 21 who choose to drink tend to drink in an unhealthy way and are more likely to engage in heavy episodic drinking, also known as binge drinking.

Some students also view underage drinking as a way to defy authority, he said.

“Prohibition creates taboo, and taboo creates high risk,” Gillman said.

Gillman said he organized a town- hall style panel discussion earlier in the month at the Student Health Center to hear from community members about problems associated with underage drinking.

Tad Thompson, a shift supervisor for the Jackson County Ambulance Service and a panel member, said he strongly supported Gillman’s proposals to educate students under the age of 21 about consuming alcohol in a responsible manner if they choose to drink.

“There is going to be underage drinking,” he said. “The abstinence approach hasn’t worked yet.”

Thompson said as an emergency medical technician, he’s seen the effect of binge drinking too many times.

Bonna Machlan, a clinical supervisor at the Southern Illinois Regional Social Services in Carbondale and a panel member, said people who start drinking before 21 are at a greater risk for becoming alcoholics, and she is against underage drinking.

She said the biggest reason she is against people consuming alcohol before 21 is that the brain is still developing and alcohol can impair that process.

She said establishing the legal drinking age at 21 is seen by health care professionals as a proper balance, even though there is speculation that the human brain may continue developing until age 24 or 25.

“We want to try to prevent damage to the brain,” she said.

Liz Farmer, a panel member and university senior studying fashion design merchandising, said she thinks social media encourages students to drink.

“I think there is a bit of pressure from the media. You can’t get on ‘Texts From Last Night’ without seeing a bunch of crazy stories about how drunk someone got. I think some people view it as a challenge to have their drinking adventures memorialized in a way,” she said in an email.