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Fitting In at FSU

For many students, college life holds plenty of new experiences—not all of them healthy. Often, the desire to fit in can lead students to make choices that can put them in harm’s way.

"FSU freshmen and sophomores often feel pressured to participate in behaviors that promote underage and binge drinking in college," said Eric Gipson, prevention coordinator for Alcohol, Tobacco, & Other Drugs (AOD) at Florida State University’s (FSU) Center for Health Advocacy & Wellness (CHAW). "It’s often their first time away from home, there are no other checks in place, and they have all these new freedoms. There’s a lot of anxiety around trying to fit in."

According to a Healthy Campus 2017 Health Report, which compared FSU data from 2013 to 2017:

  • Alcohol use at FSU peaked in 2017, with 78.4% of surveyed students indicating any past 30-day use.
  • Since 2012, alcohol use at FSU has increased by 8.3 percentage points.
  • The percentage of FSU students consuming alcohol in the past 30 days exceeded that of comparable institutions in 2014 and 2017.
  • Students were likely to have consumed more alcohol in the past 30 days if they believed the typical FSU student had consumed alcohol in the past 30 days.

In addition, per a 2017 FSU National College Health Assessment, 45% of students reported doing something that they later regretted after drinking.

Preventing underage and binge drinking on college campuses is a priority within SAMHSA’s Communities Talk initiative, just as it is for CHAW. By encouraging FSU students to take ownership of prevention efforts and embrace healthy decision-making from the start of their college career, CHAW hopes that these statistics might change for the better.

Communities Talk Resources for Youth Engagement

SAMHSA has resources to help community-based organizations encourage youth to play a larger role in planning and hosting Communities Talk activities.

Download SAMHSA’s guide to engaging youth in underage drinking prevention and other resources from the Resources for Youth Engagement page.

Partnering to Spread Prevention

The 2019 cycle of Communities Talk events provided an opportunity for CHAW to address some of these issues with students themselves. Along with FSU’s University Housing department, which handles infractions in residence halls with underage students and substance use, CHAW hosted an open forum for students on underage drinking in November 2019. Specifically, CHAW sought to educate underage students on the university’s recently revised Medical Amnesty Policy.

FSU Medical Amnesty Policy

The policy ensures that FSU students who receive medical attention as a result of alcohol and/or illegal drug use are eligible for Medical Amnesty and will not face formal action under the FSU Student Code of Conduct. FSU students seeking medical assistance for another person during an alcohol or other drug-related emergency while simultaneously violating a student conduct policy against alcohol or drug use or possession are also eligible for Medical Amnesty.

Since many serious or life-threatening situations as a result of alcohol and/or illegal drug use occur in residence halls, the medical amnesty topic provided a natural tie-in to the University Housing department, as well as two other university partners—the FSU Police Department and FSU’s Florida Center for Prevention Research (FCPR). The FSU Police Department is often the recipient of calls from students seeking medical assistance during alcohol or other drug-related emergencies. FCPR, on the other hand, collects data and creates promotions based on the positive outcomes regarding students’ substance use behaviors (e.g., increases in abstinence, decreases in underage drinking, more students staying with friends who have overdosed vs. leaving them on their own, etc.).

"It can be hard to get students to discuss alcohol prevention in a voluntary fashion, so we have to try new things and partner with others," explained Gipson. "Through our collaboration with partners, we were able to invite more students to our event."

As Gipson was new to the role when he began planning the activity, he and the CHAW team relied on the full complement of Communities Talk and other SAMHSA resources to make sure they covered all the bases.

Letting Students Be Heard

The open forum took place on November 6, 2019, from 6 to 7 p.m., drawing close to 20 freshmen and sophomores. Intentionally structured as more of a discussion than a presentation, the forum encouraged students to share their thoughts and questions with CHAW, University Housing, the FSU Police Department, and FCPR.

Going into the event, CHAW was aware that there were different interpretations of the policy among students, staff, and even across departments. That’s why at the forum, they designed slides to play in the background on a loop that addressed the specifics of the Medical Amnesty Policy in simplified terms. At the same time, CHAW and its cross-section of partners answered students’ questions and provided clarification around the main point of the policy: that "it’s a life-saving mechanism that will keep you from any sort of legal trouble," in Gipson’s words.

During the discussion, students said that they had looked out their dorm windows and seen other students passed out in the courtyard, with no one calling for help or staying until help arrived (both of which are asked of students in the Medical Amnesty Policy).

"Students may feel afraid that if they report someone, they’ll get in trouble too—especially if they’re underage and they’ve also been drinking," Gipson explained. "In the revised policy, we wanted to spell out, more than anything, that the first priority is to save a life. Everything else can come later."

Several graduate students/peer educators employed by CHAW raised other topics that come up frequently, such as binge drinking and its connection to alcohol-related overdoses. They also discussed the use of medical marijuana, which, though legalized in Florida, is strictly regulated on FSU’s campus. Finally, they explained how mixing alcohol with other substances—whether it’s marijuana, prescription drugs, heroin, or cocaine—can exacerbate an already dangerous situation.

Following Up in the Virtual Era

In March 2020, most FSU services went virtual due to COVID-19, and CHAW staff took their AOD prevention education efforts entirely online. Over the summer, social media was the main avenue for sharing prevention messaging.

"The shorter the message, the more impactful it was in terms of hits, sharing, and reposting," Gipson noted, adding that Instagram posts were the most effective.

At the end of each summer, CHAW staff typically participate in new students’ orientation, providing information on underage drinking and other substance use. For the 2020-2021 school year’s online orientation, CHAW created online drop-in spaces for new students and families to discuss concerns ranging from stress and anxiety to addictions, accountability, and more. As some students are living in residence halls this fall, CHAW also developed online presentations with information for resident assistants (RAs), such as what to do in the event of an overdose.

In a school year that will include both in-person and remote learning, CHAW plans to continue providing prevention programming online through posting on social media, hosting live and recorded presentations, directing students to prevention options from off-campus partnerships and resources, facilitating virtual support groups, and more. Staff are hopeful that they also will be able to host in-person activities in spring 2021.

Despite the challenges faced by college community-based prevention organizations across the country due to COVID-19, CHAW is no stranger to trying new approaches to help students make healthier decisions. Equipped with SAMHSA’s virtual Communities Talk resources, CHAW is well-positioned to continue this ongoing conversation with students across virtual channels.

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