Monday Musings…. A Sobering Thought

It never ceases to amaze me when I teach Mental Health First Aid, just how may people regularly drink beyond the low-risk drinking guidelines set out by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. Most are unaware that such guidelines exist, but more than that, they are astounded to learn that their self-poured glass of wine or shot of liquor is more than the recommended amount. In summary, Canadians are drinking more than they realize and have very little conscience about it.

What’s most concerning to me, is how this mindset is being cultivated in our young people. It has been, and likely always will be, a rite of passage for many 19-year-olds, in Ontario, to rejoice in their advancement to adulthood with the celebratory raising of the glass or bottle and consuming the contents until they’re intoxicated. This is then followed with the morning-after-effects which can be translated into not showing up for work or school. Photos are taken and shared for the world to see “what a great night this was”!

Does anybody see the problem with this? “Oh, it’s just for fun”, some will argue. “No one got hurt”, says another. But we all know this is rarely a one-time occurrence. And, let’s not kid ourselves, this was likely not the first time the now ‘of-age’ person actually had a drink.

It’s clear that people very quickly, for social reasons, peer pressure, for stress relief (you name it, there doesn’t need to be a reason), fall into the trap that alcohol ‘makes me feel good. It’s my party and I’ll drink if I want too’.

What we are doing is recreating Pavlov’s famous dog experiment in his lab, for which he won a Noble Prize by the way: noting that the presence of meat makes a dog drool, but said dog can be conditioned to create that same salivation response with, of all things, a bell. Likewise, the bottle of alcohol makes one imbibe, but we can condition that person to choose other substances or behaviours to get that same elated feeling. Soon we see the person cascading down towards that infamous slippery slope of addiction created by their own drool or, dare we include, vomit.

While I realize it is a person’s choice whether they partake or not, it is a national health concern, and for me as a college professor, an educational concern. According to Statistics Canada, 29% of young adults who drank exceeded the low risk guideline for chronic risk (2017). This statistic is not a surprise to me when I observe students going to the campus pub following a test at 11:30 in the morning. Students are being conditioned that if they feel stressed, there is a cheap and easy way to dull their pain. There are other healthier ways people to cope with the pressures of post-secondary education!

I get the ‘first time away from home’ thing, and ‘now I’m an adult’, but have these ‘kids’ ever been taught the possible harm or long-term consequences of habitual drinking? And I’m not talking about giving them a pamphlet or even a high school presentation. Youth are idealists and think “it’ll never happen to me”. Students are even well aware of St. Patrick’s Day riots caused by college students, or alcohol related accidents or deaths on campuses, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from continuing to drink.

Every year, I see students who start off on steady feet in September, and by February (i.e. now) are stumbling down the halls, lost and broke, and feeling some of those consequences. I truly am concerned for them and their future.

There needs to be some deliberate action and continual education to properly equip students with knowledge and awareness to make better choices about alcohol, drugs, sex, and a slew of other temptations that are placed in front of them daily. They need to see that their giving in to a promise of momentary pleasure actually matters big time in the long run. But my fear is that so many young people can’t even answer the question as to what really matters. If that's the case, we are in more trouble than the statistics tells us.

As Pavlov said in his Nobel address: “Essentially, only one thing in life is of real interest to us – our psychical constitution [experience]”. If that’s true, then people (of any age) will continue to be driven more and more to pursue pleasure at the expense of wisdom and virtue. That’s a sobering thought when it comes to the use of alcohol.

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