KATHERINE ATKINSON AND STEPHANIE COOKSON
South Africa has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption worldwide and it is no secret that university students contribute to this statistic. University has a reputation for providing students with many memorable nights out, bringing the promise of drinking, and not always causally.
To gain insight into alcohol use among university students, PDBY spoke to Sister Alidah Kekana from the University of Pretoria’s Student Health Services (SHS). Sister Kekana explains that university is a time where young people are likely to engage in experimental behaviour, and therefore, students experiment with alcohol. She adds that alcohol becomes a problem when it starts to disturb your daily functioning, such as missing a class or drinking to subdue the effects of a hangover.
When asked why university students who display alcoholic tendencies are not labelled alcoholics, Sister Kekana explains that this may be because the disease takes several years to develop. However, according to Alcohol Rehab Guide, an estimated 20% of university students who drink meet the medical criteria for having alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorder can be an early marker for alcoholism and includes symptoms like spending significant amounts of time drinking, the recurrence of excessive alcohol consumption, continual alcohol cravings, prioritising drinking over other activities, and drinking despite the negative impacts it can have on your relationships or mental health.
“an estimated 20% of university students who drink meet the medical criteria for having alcohol use disorder”
Sister Kekana says that the SHS has never come across a student who has said they have a problem with drinking, however, they see many students who suffer the effects of drunkenness, including being victims of theft and sexual assault. “Alcohol is dangerous, it should be taken responsibly,” says Sister Kekana. She adds that irresponsible alcohol consumption costs the country a lot of money and many car accidents occur in South Africa because of young, drunken drivers.
Jordan Catterick, the owner of Jukes, a popular student bar near UP, also acknowledges the effects of alcohol-related accidents. He says that Jukes sees alcohol-related injuries such as people cutting their feet on glass or passing out, around “three or four times a week, easy”. While there are sometimes alcohol-related fights, Catterick says fighting at Jukes decreased substantially when they employed security.
However, as a former UP student, Catterick believes that these days the bigger concern is drug use, with students being more interested in the cheapest way to have the best time. However, when PDBY asked random students on UP campus whether they think alcohol consumption is problematic among students, the majority answered yes. Nevertheless, the sale of alcohol still seems to flourish. Chris Dippenaar, manager at Liquor City Hillcrest, says having a business situated in an area populated by students contributes to the success of his business. Located just 1km away from UP’s Hatfield campus, Dippenaar believes 70% of his customers to be students, with the store seeing “anything between 300 [to] 1000 customers” per day. Dippenaar estimates that 700 litres of spirits, and 1600 litres of beers and ciders, are sold weekly. Catterick says that on busy days Jukes will have about a thousand students pass through its doors, and sell around 300 litres of alcohol.
Perhaps it is not only the amount of alcohol consumed but also the way it is consumed by students which can be problematic. Alcohol Rehab Guide says that 50% of students who drink will binge drink. For men, binge drinking is defined by having five or more alcoholic beverages in two hours and for women is four or more drinks within two hours. Binge drinking is not the same as alcohol use disorder but significantly increases the risk of developing an alcohol abuse problem. “A shift from binge drinking to alcoholism can happen quickly, leading to serious health complications and other harmful consequences,” says Alcohol Rehab Guide.
“do not use alcohol as an outlet […] go out and have a good time but do it responsibly”
There is a widespread belief that students turn to alcohol and engage in risky drinking patterns such as binging, as a way to handle stress. While alcohol does act as a short-term sedative, in the long run, science says it has the opposite effect, often exacerbating underlying mental health issues or resulting in indirect consequences like injuries. Alcohol acts as a sedative and depressant on the central nervous system, commonly felt in the ‘unwinding’ feeling associated with drinking. This short break from feelings of stress or anxiety is, however, often followed by more serious issues. Alcohol-induced anxiety often develops in people who already suffer from an anxiety-related disorder, and can emerge within just a few hours of alcohol consumption. The University of North Carolina Medical School produced a study that shows how alcohol consumption can rewire the brain, increasing the risk of the development of anxiety disorders. The American Addiction Centre also states that the link between alcohol and depression is “undeniable”. Apart from short term mental health detriments, alcohol poses more serious threats to not only the liver but also the brain. This includes damage to cognitive development. The National Institution on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that alcohol can disrupt new brain cell growth, and that “it may be this lack of new growth that results in the long–term deficits found in key areas of the brain.”
Catterick advises students against using alcohol as a way to counter stress, “do not use alcohol as an outlet […] go out and have a good time but do it responsibly”. He says that drinking responsibly includes having water with your alcoholic beverages and urges students to “make [their] night last a little bit, have fun with it”. Sister Kekana shows similar sentiments, adding that we have rights but we must also know our responsibilities “because they have to go hand in glove”. She believes that responsible drinking relies on individual self-discipline which includes knowing your limits. Sticking to your limit on a night out is a very important tool in curbing behaviour that can eventually lead to binge drinking and other habits that put students at risk of developing alcoholism or alcohol use disorder.
Catterick says that Jukes is moving away from purely being about nightlife and drinking culture through their quiz and bingo nights. They want to create an atmosphere where you can “sit down and chill with your mates”, says Catterick. Engaging in social activities that are not purely centred around drinking can be helpful for someone who wishes to cut back on alcohol consumption. Reducing alcohol consumption or quitting altogether is a personal decision that cannot be enforced by anyone, and both Sister Kekana and Catterick argue that students are going to drink if they want to. Considering this, Catterick says it is important to drink in a fun but safe environment, while Sister Kekana reiterates to students that self-discipline and taking responsibility is key.
Image: Elmarie Kruger