Running on Empty
Getting There from Here
Full Steam Ahead
Beyond the Bluster
Cashing in Her Chips
The Art & Science of Diversity
Twins Be Nimble
|When the Party's Over
A new program helps high-risk student drinkers get back on track
|—Hannah Drake ’06
DR. GEORGE PARKS ASKED ME if I knew why I was here. I said the resident assistant in my dorm had caught me with a beer. Parks asked me how I felt about it.
||Health Services Associate Director Sally Linowski (left), School of Public Health research assistant professor Dr. Gloria DiFulvio (center), and BASICS project director Diane Fedorchak (right) headllined the UMass BASICS kick-off. The slide behind them shows how students who went through the BASICS program drank less than the control group over a span of four years.
Parks and I sat facing each other in front of a room full of health and mental health providers, students, and community members at a kick-off orientation for the new Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) www.umass.edu/uhs/pages/basics.html program at UMass Amherst. We were simulating the initial meeting between a judicially sanctioned student and a BASICS staff member.
“I just don’t think it’s that big a deal,” I said. “I’m almost 21, everyone drinks at college. It wouldn’t be a problem except that I got caught. The people in charge want to make an example out of someone,” I added, hoping to articulate how most sanctioned students feel.
“Oh, so you think it was wrong place, wrong time kind of thing?” asked Parks.
“Exactly,” I said.
This conversational, non-accusatorial interaction is a core technique of BASICS. Parks asked me about my drinking history and my family’s drug and alcohol history and briefly screened me for other psychological problems that would be better treated elsewhere before ending the mock session.
In 2005, the Princeton Review crowned UMass Amherst one of the “Best Northeastern Colleges,” as well as one of 81 nationwide “Colleges with a Conscience” for our outstanding community-service learning programs. It also named us the number nine party school in the nation. You can probably guess which ranking garnered the most press.
Sensational headlines do not paint a full picture, of course. UMass Amherst, like most colleges, recognizes that its students drink. “Students who choose to drink alcohol are expected to do so responsibly and in accordance with campus regulations, state laws, and town ordinances,” according to the campus’s alcohol and drug policy mission statement.
But the campus does more than lay down the law. It offers real help to students who get into trouble with alcohol.
“Heavy drinking on college campuses is a complex problem and requires a menu of dedicated solutions,” says Sandra Whitcomb ’67, ’98G director of UMass Amherst’s 19-year-old Residential Education Alcohol Program (REAP).
The BASICS program is just one component of the campus’s comprehensive and strategic approach to addressing illegal and high-risk alcohol use.
“Our strategic plan addresses the five factors that contribute to alcohol-related problems on campus and in the community—high density of liquor stores and bars near campus, inconsistent enforcement of alcohol policy and laws, aggressive marketing of alcohol to college students, lack of alcohol-free options, and an environment that condones dangerous and illegal alcohol use—we are implementing evidence-based strategies at multiple levels to make UMass Amherst a healthier and safer place,” says Dr. Sally Linowski, ’88G, ’04G, Associate Director of University Health Services and Director of the new Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention (CADAP).
Advised by the Campus Community Coalition to Reduce High Risk Drinking (a task force of key stakeholders including town and campus police, faculty, landlords, chamber of commerce leaders, judicial officers, students, and representatives from residence life, Greek affairs, community relations, and campus activities), Linowski and her staff have had a busy first year. A new online alcohol education course, www.MyStudentBody.com/Alcohol, will be required for all incoming students this fall. A major social norms marketing campaign began this spring in the Athletics Department and will be rolled out campus-wide next fall.
“In addition to these population-based strategies, BASICS is an individual intervention for high-risk drinkers. What we know from research is that alcohol education alone does not change behavior… motivational interviewing with personalized feedback on one’s drinking and teaching specific strategies to reduce risks does work,” says Linowski.
BASICS is the first response when students get into trouble with drinking. About 1,000 students a year go through the program, mostly referrals from the judicial system for on-campus alcohol violations, but self-referrals are welcome too. Students attend two one-hour interview sessions with a trained prevention specialist, completing a personal assessment of their drinking patterns and attitudes after the first session. Repeat offenders, and first offenders with more serious violations such as alcohol-related violence and vandalism, are referred to REAP, which deals with about 340 students annually.
With BASICS, UMass Amherst has a powerful weapon in its arsenal. The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration of the United States Department of Health and Human Services awarded the campus a $1.5 million three-year grant to implement the program and to evaluate its effectiveness over the next three years. The campus was one of only 12 schools in the country to be awarded a SAMHSA grant.
Researchers at University of Washington developed BASICS in the mid-1990s, and it has been implemented at MIT, Ohio State, and Oregon State University, among other colleges. Studies indicate that BASICS in essence speeds up the “maturation rate” or the natural process most students go through from freshman to senior year in which risky drinking decreases, said Parks, one of the program’s developers. The UMass Amherst program is a joint initiative of CADAP and the School of Public Health and Health Sciences. Linowski and Dr. Gloria DiFulvio ’93G, ’04G, research assistant professor in Community Health Studies, are co-principal investigators of the grant. DiFulvio manages the research and evaluation components while Linowski directs the implementation of BASICS services to students.
BASICS seeks to help students change their beliefs about alcohol consumption through education, versus telling them that alcohol use is unacceptable or wrong. Students are asked to consider how their drinking habits compare to their peers’ behavior. The idea is that heavy or risky drinkers have these problems primarily because they think everyone is doing the same thing; once they see how their habits compare, they’ll want to change.
After the initial screening, says Diane Fedorchak ’03G, BASICS Project Director, “the student returns two weeks later. Between the first and second sessions we ask them to keep a record of their drinking...times, places, and situations, in addition to quantities.”
During the second session, students are provided with personalized feedback on how their drinking compares to that of other UMass Amherst students. Students also identify negative consequences of their drinking. These run the gamut from blackouts, hangovers, and getting into fights with both strangers and friends, to lower GPAs, alcohol overdose, arrest, sexual assault, and unprotected sex.
“We talk about the biphasic affect of alcohol: At less than .05 blood alcohol content, things seem pretty good. Once you get to .05 though you begin to experience negative consequences,” says Fedorchak.
During the BASICS feedback session, students are offered alternatives to heavy drinking and learn specific strategies to reduce risks related to alcohol. Together with the prevention specialist, students identify healthy changes they could make based on their own motivation to change.
“BASICS is only a two-session program, but students can come back to meet with the prevention specialist if they want. Students may be referred if mental health problems are identified or if they clearly have a problem with dependence,” explains Fedorchak.
Staff members are excited about BASICS’ potential to change students’ lives, leading them away from a destructive habit. “It’s science-based,” says Linowski. “Studies show that after just two sessions participants reduce the quantity and frequency of drinking and experience fewer negative consequences.”
The technique is a good fit for college students. “It’s non-judgmental and non-confrontational,” says Fedorchak. “Alcohol touches so many lives in so many different ways. This is a place where students won’t be judged, and they’ll know they are not alone in choosing to drink a little or a lot.”
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