A new study shows that six percent of college students meet criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol dependence (also referred to as alcoholism), and 31 percent meet the clinical criteria for alcohol abuse. The study found that more than two of every five students report at least one symptom of these conditions, putting them at increased risk of developing a true alcohol disorder. Previous studies on college drinking have concentrated on the type, frequency and amount of alcohol consumed. Among college students this is the first study to assess the actual extent of alcohol diagnoses. "Heavy drinking is most often regarded as a behavior problem only," said John R. Knight, Principal Investigator of the study and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School. Our study indicates that many students who drink heavily are at high risk of true mental disorders alcohol abuse and dependence. Alcohol dependence especially may become a lifelong illness, and more should be done to recognize and help students at risk, continue the specialist. The findings were released by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS). The article appears in the May 2002 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.

Alcohol disorders among college students

Heavy episodic drinkers (often called binge drinkers), and especially frequent heavy episodic drinkers, are at increased risk of alcohol disorders. Once in the two weeks before the students completed the survey questionnaire, heavy episodic drinkers are defined as men who had five or more or women who had four or more drinks in a row at least. Frequent heavy episodic drinkers have consumed these amounts at least three times in the previous two weeks. Alcohol industry organizations and some alcohol educators have questioned the five/four measure as too low to be considered heavy episodic drinking. The study shows that drinking at this level is associated with a much higher risk of alcoholism, however. One in every five frequent heavy episodic drinkers was classified with alcohol dependence (alcoholism), compared to one of every 20 students in the overall student population, for instance. "The findings that so many students are diagnosable as alcohol dependent or alcohol abusers indicate that the drinking levels of too many students are dangerously high. Any attempt to downplay college drinking flies in the face of the facts," said Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., Principal Investigator of the CAS. Students who attend colleges with heavy drinking environments are more likely to be diagnosed with abuse or dependence. Male students are at greater risk than females. Nearly one in 10 college men under age 24 met a 12-month diagnosis of alcohol dependence compared to one in 20 college women under age 24. Few students report seeking treatment despite the prevalence of true alcohol disorders on college campuses. The researchers recommend that student judicial and health service organizations implement early identification programs, and that colleges take additional steps to increase the skills and awareness of students, resident hall and advising personnel about alcohol disorders.