Counseling Center
The Counseling, Health & Wellness Center

Words of wisdom: (refresh page for more quotes)


Second Hand Alcohol


Suzanne Hollist, CSW and Suzanne Clarke, CSW, CASAC

Everyone is aware of second hand smoke, but second hand alcohol is also a reality. We are well aware of the serious consequences of drinking and driving, and know of the affects one person's excessive drinking can have on family and close friends. (see Does Someone You Care About Have a Drinking Problem) There has been consciousness raising around the dangers of sexual assault as it is related to alcohol. We don't want to minimize the severity of these problems, but most students are impacted by excessive drinking in less drastic, but more common ways.

Jennie is awakened in the night when her roommate comes home sick and drunk and she gets up to take care of her. Jack gets a call from his pal who is downtown and drunk and wants Jack to come pick him up so he won't get a DWI. Jennie and Jack both have tests the next morning. They had studied, planned to get a good night's sleep, and get up in time to review their notes and get to class. Instead they barely wake up in time to pull on a pair of sweats and a baseball cap and get to the test. They are not thinking as well as they would like and later are upset because they missed some questions they really knew.

Mike lives off campus with some friends. He didn't realize that the friends would use the house as a party center and he can never get any studying done. He has a hard time getting any sleep at all. Paula gets up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and finds vomit all over the toilet bowl and even in the wash basins. Kerry likes to go downtown on weekends and dance and go to the bars, but she is careful to space her drinks and not drink too much. However, because she is sober it seems that she always ends up taking care of someone who is less responsible about drinking. Susan feels alone and isolated because she believes she is the only one on campus who isn't going downtown and partying. Tony joined a fraternity his freshman year. He had done a lot of drinking in high school and continued to drink in college, but about his third year, he decided he really wanted to cut back on his drinking. He still likes his fraternity brothers, but feels he must continue his heavy drinking if he wants to be a part of the fraternity. Frank went away for the weekend and came back to school to find that his roommate had been drunk and angry and trashed his stereo.

There is a perception on the campus that most students are drinking and drinking a lot several times a week. In actuality, 20% of the students on this campus report not drinking alcohol at all, and another 70% report consuming alcohol once a week or less (2012 CORE data). Perhaps the explanation for the perception lies in the fact that a large majority of students are affected in some way by drinking. The College Alcohol Study by the Harvard School of Public Health revealed that between 65% and 87% of students living on campus experienced one or more problems as a result of some one else's drinking.

What can you do if you are experiencing the secondhand affect of someone else's drinking? Is there anything you can do? In reality there are times when there is nothing you can do, but there are other situations where you can do something or refrain from doing something which can be helpful to you and perhaps to your friends. While you can't change someone else's behavior, you might be able to change your own.

Sometimes you may feel loyalty to a friend even though they have made some poor choices. Jennie and Jack and Kerry all seem to be loyal friends. Part of their self-image may be that they are always there for their friends. However, by being so helpful, they are jeopardizing their own well being and may actually be encouraging their friends in inappropriate behavior. They can't change their friends' behavior, but they can let their friends know that they don't intend to take care of them when they have been drinking too much. Unfortunately alcohol can be deadly and when someone has overdosed, is hurt or unconscious, or has been a victim of a crime, emergency measures must be taken.

Mike feels that he is the only one in his house who is disturbed by the excessive drinking. He might want to check with his housemates one on one and see if all of them really want the house to be a party house. It may be that he is in the majority. In that case, they can set up some house rules. If he really is the only one who doesn't want to party, he may have to make arrangements to move. In the meantime, he can study on campus or at a friend's, and buy some earplugs. Just because his house is a party house, doesn't mean he has to be a party animal.

Susan's feelings of being alone and isolated because she is not a drinker may be the most common complaint on campus. It may be especially difficult if Susan is a little shy. Some students have successfully navigated this situation by taking it very slow. If Susan can remember that she isn't always going to feel this way and stay focused on other areas, she may find herself with the kind of social life she wants. It never hurts to focus on studies and grades; a good GPA the first year at school is a great cushion. At the same time, Susan could be aware of other opportunities on campus to feel more a part of the school. She can join clubs around her interests, or get involved with the Center for Social Responsibility. If she has a religious affiliation, she may make contact with the Campus Ministry. The important thing for Susan to remember is that there are many others who feel the way she does.

Chances are Tony's fraternity brothers will be so involved in their own drinking, they won't even notice that he has cut back on his drinking. If they do and comment to Tony on it, he can tell them he has just decided its time for him to move on and cut back. He isn't trying to tell them what they should or should not be doing. If that is not enough, Tony may have to evaluate just how genuine his fraternity brothers are.

The cases of Paula and Frank are a little more complicated. Frank's roommate has destroyed property, which is a legal problem. And Paula and her hall mates are exposed to disease spreading conditions. In each case, getting help from RAs and RDs is good first step.

While we have discussed just a few possibilities, it is easy to see that drinking can impact almost everyone on campus. For those who are affected by second hand alcohol there are measures you can take to make change. If you are planning on making some changes in the way you are relating to drinking friends, it may be wise to let them know ahead of time when they are sober. "You are a good friend and I like to help you, but I'm not coming to get you any more when you're drunk. Take a cab or get the bus." "The next time throw up all over our room, I'll clean it up because I can't stand it, but I will also let the RA/RD know what happened." Remember that any consequences a friend may suffer are a result of his or her behavior, not yours.