The BASICS of Tackling Risky Drinking Behavior Among College Students

by Kaitlyn Hanisko on September 25, 2013

Photo credit: AnnieGreenSprings via wikimedia

Photo credit: AnnieGreenSprings via wikimedia

Risky drinking behavior among college students has been and continues to be a concern at most major universities across the US. According to the results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, young adults aged 18 to 22 enrolled full time in college were more likely than their peers who were not enrolled full time to use alcohol in the past month, binge drink, and drink heavily. 60.8% of full-time students reported they were current drinkers. 45% of undergraduates reported they engaged in binge drinking in the previous month. This pattern of higher rates of current alcohol use and binge drinking among college students compared to their peers not enrolled full time has remained consistent since 2002. On top of those concerns, according to a recent NPR article, in a poll of high school seniors, 20% said they’d binge drank in the past two weeks. This number highlights that students are coming into college with extreme binge drinking habits.

Universities are feeling the pressure to do something about their college students risky drinking behavior… But the question is what and how? It’s apparent that the alcohol education programs, such as Project DARE, that students receive in high school aren’t doing the job (Project D.A.R.E. has been declared ineffective). So what can on-campus alcohol and drug abuse education and prevention programs do differently to make an impact?

Back to the BASICS

It’s unrealistic to think that college students are going to just up and quit drinking because somebody told them not to. An interesting and somewhat new idea is to take a harm reduction approach, where the focus is on the prevention of harm from drinking alcohol versus the prevention of drinking alcohol. U of M’s Alcohol and Other Drug Department, along with 1,100 other colleges and universities, has put into place a program called Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention of College Students (BASICS). BASICS aims to motivate students to reduce alcohol use in order to decrease the negative consequences of drinking. BASICS is designed to help students in examining their own drinking behavior in a judgment free environment. In a recent study done to determine the effectiveness of BASICS it was found that students who received BASICS had reported drinking alcohol much less after 1 year compared to those who hadn’t received BASICS. So what is it about BASICS that does the trick?

BASICS Broken Down

There are two important pieces to the BASICS program. First, is the use of brief motivational interviewing by the BASICS facilitator. Motivational interviewing is a kind of counseling that is delivered in an empathetic and non-confrontational way. During a BASICS session, various topics are covered with the student such as personal beliefs about alcohol use; drinking history; individual negative consequences and risk factors; and personal risk and benefits of drinking. The use of brief motivational interviewing in BASICS is intended to reveal discrepancy between the student’s risky drinking behavior and his or her goals and values in a nonjudgmental way. Additionally, by using motivational interviewing the BASICS facilitator doesn’t force change on the student but rather emphasizes that the choice is really up to the student if and how they want to make changes to their drinking behavior. Borsari et al. results showed that students who received brief motivational interviewing greatly reduced their number of alcohol-related problems compared to those who only received education at 3, 6, and 9 months of follow up. Motivational interviewing works through empowering the student. It also helps the student explore changing his or her behavior and works to help resolve any ambivalence they might have about making a change in their drinking behaviors.

The second important piece to the BASICS program is that it addresses social norms. Social norms are beliefs about what is acceptable in a social context and are addressed through personalized normative feedback (PNF). PNF approaches are designed to correct students’ misconceptions to reduce heavy drinking. For example, most students tend to think that their peers drink more often and more heavily than is really the case, PNF works to correct this idea. Three pieces of information are used when giving PNF: info about the student’s own drinking, info about the student’s perceptions of others drinking, and info about others actual drinking. By comparing the student’s actual drinking to others actual “normal” behavior their misconceptions are exposed. In a recent review of social norms interventions to reduce alcohol misuse in college students, it was reported that of the 476 participants who received PNF, 61% of them reported a reduction in the frequency of their drinking 4 to 16 months after and 60% reported a reduction in their binge drinking 3 months after. Lewis and Neighbors report that this is because college students have a strong influence on each others behavior.

The Answer is Pretty BASIC(S)

So, the key to tackling the issue of college students’ risky drinking behaviors is to work towards preventing the harm from drinking alcohol. BASICS really allows the student to take a 360 degree look at how alcohol fits into their life and in most cases enough discrepancy is created that they will want to do something about it.