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Fairfield Expert Aims To Dispel Drinking Myths

Nobody needs to tell Janice Kessler the statistics about underage drinking and drug use. After all, she saw 175 students with such problems last year as coordinator of Sacred Heart University’s Alcohol and Other Drug Program. And she knows that the number of college students who die from alcohol poisoning each year has climbed from 1,400 to 1,825 in the 10 years she has had the job.

Yet Janice also knows that students such as Greenwich native Brian Macken, who died this week of an apparent drug overdose at Indiana University, are the exception, not the rule. And it’s part of her prevention program to make kids and parents aware of it.

“Almost always, the perception of how college students drink, and … perceive their peers, is much higher than what they actually report,” Janice says.

SHU takes a three-pronged method for dealing with substance abuse on campus. Janice does intervention counseling with students caught with drugs and alcohol, or who admit they have a problem. It joined other college campuses and makes each student take AlchoholEdu to educate them on the dangers of drinking.

But Janice is most proud of the school’s “social norming” program. She and her team have plastered the school with other statistics, less obvious than the ones rattled off above. “Most students have 0-4 drinks when they go out partying.” “70 percent of SHU students drink twice a week or less.”

Janice and her department compile the statistics every year through anonymous surveys. The less students think their peers are drinking, the more they feel it’s OK to moderate their drinking and stay away from drugs.

Still, the danger is out there. Janice suggests that parents keep an eye on certain warning signs when their kids go away to college, as she did with her son (a recent Brandeis grad) and her daughter (a SHU sophomore).

One simple idea is to watch the kids’ bank accounts — they can’t drink without spending money. Grades are also a good indicator; a wild shift in performance from high school could indicate trouble. But above all, she stresses talking with your kids and not staying in denial.

“Most students — most adults — perceive alcohol as a beverage,” Janice says. “It’s still a drug.”

Are you worried about your kids drinking when they go away to college? Share your views in the comments below, or over at our Facebook and Twitter pages.

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