Drowning in addiction: The social aspects of alcohol abuse

by Audrey Carleton, Student Living editor

(Noah Sutton / McGill Tribune)

'We are we are we are we are we are the engineers! We can we can we can we can demolish 40 beers!' can be heard echoing through the streets of Montreal during early September every year. This chant, along with others like it, serves as an introduction for many first-year students to McGill. This experience is a prologue for the social environment in which a large portion of students will participate during university.

On university campuses, where alcohol and substance use become integral to social life for many, students are placed at high risk of addiction, abuse, and overdose. Despite welcoming most students to campus with a week of binge-drinking in the form of Frosh, topics of substance abuse and alcoholism are largely left out of the conversation surrounding drinking on campus by the McGill administration and student body.

With Quebec’s legal drinking age being 18, most of the student body has easy, legal access to alcohol on and around campus. A 2013 study conducted at McGill University for the National College Health Assessment, revealed that 78 per cent of McGill students that were surveyed had used alcohol in the last month. The presence of student bars and the idealization of potentially harmful binge-drinking at events like Frosh and Hype Week make alcohol use an ingrained part of social life on campus. As a result, excessive substance use and addiction is normalized and enabled.

“At Frosh, or Carnival, or Science Games, or anything like that, it’s embedded in the culture [where] everyone’s drinking,” András Lénárt, second-year Master’s student in the Department of Family Medicine and member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP), said. “There’s so much social pressure, there’s so much peer pressure on people, and if you’re drinking six beers, it doesn’t feel like that much if your friend’s saying he’s had 10 or something like that. You see yourself in relation to the others that are around you, and if everyone’s doing that, it’s just normal, it’d be abnormal to abstain, or to drink less.”

Not only does the prevalence of substance use on campus place students at greater risk for becoming addicted, it creates an unwelcoming environment for students who wish to remain sober, are in recovery from addiction, or are looking to cut back on their intake. Nina Hermes, U3 Social Work, is one of many McGill students who has struggled with addiction. She avoided signing up for Arts Frosh while in recovery and transitioning into university, but only through a literal flip of a coin between it and Rad Frosh—a dry alternative. She found little warning online about the heavy drinking that has become a part of faculty Froshes, and had she chosen to take part in it, she would have found herself at a higher risk of relapse.

“It’s interesting [...] looking at how many events are just centred around alcohol,” Hermes said. “An issue with Frosh is that obviously they’re not gonna put on the website, ‘This is a week designed for binge drinking,’ but for me, I mean, fuck, I almost did Arts Frosh. [It is] a safety issue, and I wish [the organizers would mention], ‘Hey [by the way], [this event is] binge drinking central.’”


Though Hermes has been sober for four years, when she first came to McGill, she was still in the early stages of recovery. When she was 17, Hermes sought treatment and got clean after over five years of struggling with alcoholism. Her addiction began after she moved to a new middle school, where she turned to alcohol to help her cope with feelings of anxiety and isolation.

“I started drinking when I was 13-years-old,” Hermes said. “I started [attending] this new school with no friends, not knowing anyone. I felt so deeply alone [....] That kind of sensitivity to emotions and discomfort in [my] own emotional state, that for me was what [led me to look] for alcohol and drugs to relieve [those feelings].”

With the help of friends at school who had easy access to alcohol, Hermes was able to continue drinking for most of her high school years. Despite being told by people around her that her habits were out of control, Hermes had trouble viewing herself as an addict, largely due to the stereotypes and harmful images of addiction which she did not identify with .

“We have this very preconceived idea of what [addiction] looks like, and I certainly did. I thought you had to be that guy on the street with the brown paper bag,” Hermes said. “It’s hard when you have a nice exterior. Like, for me, it was very easy to convince myself that I was fine because I had good grades [....] But, in reality, it’s like I had the same feelings as someone who had a much less nice exterior, you know, I wanted to die.”

The stigmas surrounding addiction make it difficult for many of those afflicted to come to terms with their condition, and to seek help from friends, family, and professionals. This leads many addicts to suffer in silence.

“I think there’s a lot of shame linked to using [....] It’s part of the disease in itself that people will feel like, ‘Oh, I’m a bad person because I’m using,’ and we don’t want people to know that because we all want to appear as awesome human beings,” Dr. Carine Hamel, psychiatrist at McGill Counselling and Mental Health Services (MCMHS), said. “A lot of the time, [...] the person will think, ‘Oh my god, if they know that about me, they will leave me and I will be alone, so I have to hide it.’”

While the stigma surrounding addiction can lead to social isolation, this correlation often goes both ways. Hermes, for example, attributes her vulnerability to addiction to her anxiety, which was exacerbated by her solitude when she moved to a new school as a young teen. Alcohol became her mechanism for escaping negative emotions.

“I was anxious, alone, moved to a new school, hated myself, was bullied,” Hermes said. “Had I loved myself and was confident in the person that I was, and felt like I had friends, and a community [...] I don’t think I would’ve felt the need. You know, maybe I wouldn’t have become an alcoholic.”

Hermes’ choice to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism for feelings of anxiety and isolation is reflects a common trend in society. There is evidence which suggests that social confinement leads to higher susceptibility to addiction in different animals: In a 1981 study, psychologist Bruce Alexander of Simon Fraser University observed two groups of lab rats, those that were housed in a residential park containing other rats with whom to interact, and those who lived alone. The researchers discovered that the rats living in groups were far less likely to consume a morphine solution over water when given the choice, compared to the rats who were living in solitude.

Social isolation in addiction cases is addressed through treatment and rehabilitation efforts. Despite the positive impact that increased interpersonal interaction can have on one’s urge to seek respite in substances, many individuals suffering from substance dependency find it difficult to live a social lifestyle and develop connections with others, resulting in a vicious cycle of addiction and loneliness.

(Carmen Fenech / The McGill Tribune)

“I do try to encourage my patients to socialize as much as they can, because I think it’s part of a healthy life, and it can help with a lot of things,” Dr. Hamel said. “[However,] it’s part of the illness that they feel like they cannot do it, or that they don’t have the energy, or it’s just part of it, so they will stay at home and do the drugs because they feel bad.”

The correlation between isolation and addictive tendencies may place demographics of students on campus who are already more prone to being socially excluded at a greater risk of developing substance dependencies.

“Most of [addiction risks] depend on the social conditions or the environment that an individual is in,” Lénárt said. “Individuals who are under more stress, or have [fewer] coping strategies, or have access to [fewer] resources, that’s all going to play into it and make addiction more likely, or problematic drug use in general is more likely for them.”

While limited accessibility to resources and healthy coping mechanisms is more common for marginalized groups, these individuals are also more commonly subjected to bullying and isolation, which increases their likelihood of turning to substances for an escape. In Hermes’ experience, being tormented by her peers after coming out was a key factor in the development of her alcohol dependency.

Statistically, more marginalized communities are gonna be more affected [by substance abuse],” Hermes said. “Dealing with marginalization and oppression on a daily basis, you’re gonna be more [likely] to use and abuse substances. I mean, for me, like, being bullied for being queer was a very big push to drink away my feelings.”

Creating safer spaces for students in recovery may begin with normalizing alternatives to alcohol and substances at social events on campus. OAP, Blue’s Pub, Bar des Arts, and other campus drinking holes are warm social environments for anyone with a cup in their hand, but are not very welcoming to students who cannot fill that cup with alcohol, and can be triggering for recovering addicts who are trying to go clean.

(Lauren Bensen-Armer / The McGill Tribune)

Furthermore, the services and resources on campus available to students grappling with addiction are limited in number. While MCMHS does offer a support group to students struggling with addiction, it will often simply refer students grappling with addiction to support groups and resources outside of campus.

On the one hand, going to off-campus services may help students retain a certain level of anonymity by allowing them to seek help away from the social hub of campus, whereas taking a trip to MCMHS may lead one to run into a friend or acquaintance. On the other hand, making trips to off-campus locations for therapy and support requires time, energy, and extra finances, which might not be readily available to everyone.

The hands of MCMHS are tied in the quantity of addiction support services they can provide to students. According to Hamel, students can play the strongest role in the push to create a more supportive environment for individuals struggling with addiction.

“[Students] can challenge administration way more than [MCMHS] can because usually they listen to students becoming angry [...] more than if we bring up issues,” said Dr Hamel. “Sometimes—not always, but usually—the students complaining about something or talking about something is the biggest leverage that we have.”

In addition to increasing the addiction treatment services available on campus, students and administration can work towards increasing preventative measures to substance abuse. This could start with chipping away at the stigma behind substance addiction through panels, roundtable conversations, and other awareness events.

“I think it would be good if we could restart a group at mental health for addiction, but that would be more [focused on] prevention, because that’s more where you can act on,” Dr. Hamel said. “Anything that will help to sensitize people of the problem of addiction, [...] to break the stigma, and make people more aware.”

Addressing the stigma surrounding addiction also begins with providing comprehensive education on the topic. Much like abstinence-only sexual education often fails, leading to an increase in unsafe sexual activity, teachings that have harsh anti-drug agendas only place students at a higher vulnerability to unsafe use. Focus should be shifted toward encouraging harm-reduction, which means providing students with practical strategies and information to avoid or limit the consequences of drug use. The Server Training Program, which aims to train responsible alcohol servers on campus, and the McGill Student Emergency Response Team, which is a student-run volunteer service providing emergency first aid services to the McGill University and Montreal communities, are examples of initiatives and groups that facilitate harm-reduction principles.

Further, with chapters across Canada, CSSDP mobilizes students to advocate for safety-oriented drug policies in an attempt to mitigate the irresponsible use of drugs through educational workshops and panels.

“Most drug education that you get in high school or in elementary school, it’s very much condemning drug use,” Lénárt said. “The easiest way for McGill to start would be to start to provide more comprehensive education. That balance on drug use and safer drug use, obviously not to encourage people to use them, but if they’re going to use them, what to do, [for example,] how to respond if someone goes into opioid overdose.”

Measures such as education and awareness campaigns directly address alcoholism and substance dependency on campus; however, in a broader sense, creating a welcoming space for all students—especially those who are typically marginalized—is needed to target the social determinants that cause addictions. .

“I think if McGill really wants to look at addiction popping up in university, look at [students’ social networks...] how are people feeling included or finding that home? Because that’s what’s really going to do it for people, it’s not actually going to be the alcohol. The alcohol doesn’t make you an alcoholic, it’s what’s going on up here,” Hermes said, pointing to her brain.