Dry January may be over for most, but I am approaching my first anniversary of being completely sober. In April last year I made the decision to quit drinking for good after it became apparent that my drinking habits were far from healthy.
Making that decision and sticking to it wasn’t always easy, but it’s been so worth it in the long run. The UK’s relationship with alcohol has changed significantly over the last ten years. While recent statistics show that overall alcohol consumption has decreased, the number of alcohol-related deaths is increasing, especially among women.
Alcohol culture is becoming more extreme with those who do drink often drinking in excess, while others are choosing not to drink at all. For young people, statistics show that 16-24 year olds are the second most likely age group to be non-drinkers. Last year’s NUS survey even found that 21 per cent of students don’t drink (either they have quit or they never drank in the first place.) Despite this, alcohol culture and university culture are still synonymous. Another finding from last year’s NUS survey was that 79 per cent of students believe that drinking and getting drunk is part of university culture.
Alcoholism is a largely undiagnosed problem among students, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Universities and student unions often unwittingly contribute to, and encourage these behaviour patterns without offering enough support for students suffering the consequences.
Peer-pressure is a major issue among students when it comes to drinking, and with establishments both on and off campus normalising alcohol consumption, it leaves a lot of students vulnerable to binge drinking and alcoholism. I think a significant part of the problem is a lack of awareness.
We would all like to think that we have our drinking habits under control, but for many students these habits are left largely unchecked and it can be difficult to recognise a problem when everyone around is doing the same thing. While the University and YUSU do have policies in place to support those who may be struggling with addiction, not enough is being done to normalise non-drinkers.
Most student events are sold on the promise of cheap pints and shot deals, and The Courtyard has easily the worst excuse for a mocktail menu (a couple of their usual cocktails but without the alcohol) I have ever seen. But, at least The Courtyard has a mocktail menu. As someone who has been sober almost a year, I have come to love a good mocktail, but finding somewhere on a night out where I can order something more exciting than a diet soda can be a nightmare.
Ultimately, it comes down to social expectations that enable a problematic drinking culture. In the run up to Christmas I went to two separate events at which a glass of wine was included within the price, and despite both events advertising alcohol-free alternatives (usually this is in the small print) neither establishment had briefed its staff, and I was forced to fight my case just for a glass of orange juice! And if I had a penny for every time someone asked me why I don’t drink, as if it’s any of their business, I’d be able to pay off my student loans! Choosing to drink is a conscious choice, and I’m not condemning those who do choose to drink alcohol (but if you do, please do so responsibly); I am just asking society to be considerate of those of us who choose not to.
Alcohol should not be offered as the standard. This simple action can enable bad habits, and lead to embarrassing situations when people like me are forced to ask for the manager just to have a glass of Prosecco swapped out for a soft drink (not the best value for money exchange but it’s better than nothing.)
Universities especially should be working harder to make their events inclusive for non-drinkers, and YUSU bars could seriously do with rethinking and expanding their non-alcoholic options. Contrary to what people might think, I still occasionally enjoy going out with friends even though I don’t drink, and I would love to see more being done to make York’s nightlife accommodate that.
I also know numerous students, regardless of whether or not they drink, who don’t enjoy going out and feel that there aren’t enough alternative events on campus, or that their societies don’t offer any other kind of socials. When more and more young people are making the decision not to drink - whether it be for health reasons, religious views, or simply not liking the taste - why does it sometimes feel like alcohol is being forced down our throats?
Dry January may be over, but whether you participated or not, you should still think carefully about your own drinking habits. If you would, or did struggle going an entire month without alcohol, that can be indicative of problematic habits. If you are worried about yourself, or someone you know, then you can get support by contacting Open Door or seeing your doctor.
Open Door can be accessed at https://www.york.ac.uk/about/de-partments/support-and-admin/open-door/