Cutting edge

October 6, 2000

The first few weeks as a university fresher can be traumatic. But does the union bar offer companionship or greater isolation?

This is the time when many new students will be drinking more than usual - often in response to the pressures of transition and the need to socialise. Leaving home to live far away in a university environment represents a major transition for young people.

It is probably the first time that many will have been left to fend for themselves; they will be expected to become adults very quickly, managing their own money and motivating themselves academically. This can prove an enormous pressure, and many students will feel, as soon as something goes wrong, that their problems are insurmountable.

Although transition and change are part and parcel of life, these events are likely to result in stress, sometimes creating psychological disturbance and even physical ill health. Such effects may well be compounded by increased drinking. But some would argue that these experiences can increase resourcefulness and help people deal with life's later challenges. A history of moving from place to place might, therefore, strengthen a person.

A study of homesickness in older boarding-school pupils showed a far lower occurrence of the condition among pupils who had boarded at primary age. During the autumn term, nearly 200 students at a Scottish university were questioned about how they had adapted to college. Almost one-third reported homesickness.

Loneliness is another problem. There is evidence to suggest that alcohol may be used as an escape from isolation in late adolescence, leading us to expect a positive link between heavier drinking and loneliness. However, the social aspects of drinking may mean that less socially active teenagers will drink less but experience a greater sense of social isolation, which may manifest itself in loneliness. This is particularly relevant given the traditionally strong student drinking culture of the typical university campus.

Many believe that universities should take greater care of their students, especially in the first year. Research at Hull University and elsewhere has involved the study of the health, lifestyle and psychological effects of becoming a fresher. One project (funded by the Alcohol Education and Research Council) investigated the effects of these transition experiences on drinking behaviour.

We asked intending students (randomly drawn from the applicant lists of two universities and one nursing college) to complete questionnaires, initially during the summer and subsequently halfway into their first term at university.

Of the 859 respondents, the vast majority were regular, but not excessive, drinkers. Very low drinkers (including non-drinkers) remained fairly abstemious when they moved to university, whereas more regular drinkers tended to increase their drinking. Most students felt less lonely during their first term, but very low drinkers felt more lonely than did their heavier drinking peers and were generally less satisfied with university life.

Whereas students drinking negligible amounts of alcohol appeared to experience more settling-in problems, those who increased their drinking reported more satisfaction with new friends and life in general. This could be related to the finding that these students had previously felt more isolated at home than those whose drinking did not increase. Such findings indicate several areas of potential concern and offer some insight into how drinking fits into the lifestyle of these young people.

Geoff Lowe is a health psychologist at Hull University.

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