A Study in Student Sobriety: Is It Time To Go Sober?

Originally published in The Leopard (Issue 23, Feb 2015) – third in a series of column’s on student issues around politics, identity and place. 



Like most students – I’m worried about the role alcohol plays in my life. Every weekend, for the last couple of years, I’ve pushed the lines of consumption – downing pint after pint with horrible excess, while the slow hum of a pub jukebox has soundtracked my downfall. From pub to club to house party – every social outing is one where alcohol has played a major part. Which makes me wonder – why is it that British student culture is so caught up with a need to drink, and is there any way to reverse this dichotomy?

Much has been said on why alcohol is so prevalent to the British identity. From Hemingway to Welles, Amis to Orwell each one has provoked a social comment on society’s relationship with drink. Really, it’s the romanticising of alcohol culture that’s at the heart of the problem. Whilst we like to endure the notion that getting tanked up leads us down a path of entertaining experiences – the reality is a far from a happy realisation that alcohol itself is part of the struggle to overcome the anxiety that stops us acting naturally in front of people. 

I worry because I’ve been there. For years alcohol has acted as the stress relief to the difficult nature of working life. It’s become the levy by which everything seems a lot more manageable, and the means to cope when I’ve found myself in uncomfortable and difficult situations. But getting tangled up in that cycle can be dangerous. Not only does alcohol abuse lead to depression – but it also offers no solution to the long-term triggers behind stress related problems.

The statistics that surround alcohol consumption are terrifying. In 2012, 6,490 people died from alcohol related deaths in the UK– while a fifth of all violent incidents in the same year, took place around a pub or club. Half of all young people excluded from schools are regular drinkers, and if that wasn’t enough – over 10,000 fines are handed out a year to young people aged 16-19 due to being drunken and disorderly. So why – if it’s attribution to health problems and violence are so significant – is alcohol the means by which we use to solve some of life’s most difficult problems?

Filmmaker, Kitty Horlick is someone who has sought to find answers to these issues. After battling with alcohol related health issues – she decided to set up an experiment to find out how prevalent a role alcohol played in her friend’s social lives. The resulting film, A study In Student Sobriety, produced with Beth Armstrong for local film competition Eye Want Change, saw Kitty challenge 200 of her friends to give up drinking for seven days. 140 immediately responded they wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. But 60 agreed. Already, they are pretty shocking statistics – but when you realise only 10 of the original 200 successfully completed the task, it’s then that the uncomfortable truth about our reliance on alcohol becomes a very visible issue.

For the 60 who participated, the seven days became an uncomfortable downtime full of social anxieties. In short video responses, participants told a selection of stories about how they’d had to turn down going out, struggled to feel comfortable in spaces where alcohol was present, and avoided parties in favour of staying in. The one thing that seemed immediate was people’s inability to participate in everyday social events because they weren’t drinking. Which begs the question, with British social life so intrinsically married to booze culture – pubs, clubs and parties – how is it that we’re ever to find an alternative to inebriation?

“How is having a coffee to wake you up in the morning any different from having a beer in the evening to relax?”

For Kitty and Beth, the results of the study were hardly surprising. After overcoming alcohol addiction, she became hypersensitive to the prevalence of booze in the student lifestyle. Like many of us, alcohol offered Kitty the emotional anaesthetic to deal with the pains and stresses of everyday life.

The wide variety of responses and reflections in Kitty’s film are enlightening. The most prominent was the feeling of anxiety abstaining from drinking triggered. Not only was the anxiety – based on their need for alcohol to socialise, but also on their drinking habits. “You’re socially inhibited if you don’t drink,” said one participant, with another asking, “how is having a coffee to wake you up in the morning any different from having a beer in the evening to relax?”

Much of the problem is that we wrap up alcohol with solutions – expecting that sobriety will somehow lead us to a cure for the hapless addiction to stimulation that we’ve set upon ourselves. Solutions to difficult problems aren’t meant come easily – but numbing problems through alcohol doesn’t deal with things.

"The mind-set of the 21st century individual is one that has come to embody the restless over-stimulation we get from social media, mobile phones and 24-hour rolling news. And it’s taking an effect on our bodies.”

There’s a funny backlash within the student community. As consumers, we’re relatively concerned with our health. We make rational decisions when it comes to food purchases, and we’re well informed when it comes to the harms and effects of certain stimulants on our body, but when it comes to drinking we can’t seem to stop.

I worry that we’re too dependent on an incessant need for stimulation. To me, the mind-set of the 21st century individual is one that has come to embody the restless over-stimulation we get from social media, mobile phones and 24-hour rolling news. And it’s taking an effect on our bodies. Why social activities have to point to environments where alcohol is prevalent is a myth to me. With a wider public discourse amongst the student community couldn’t we find another way to battle the torrent that is booze?

You can watch Kitty and Beth’s brilliant film here: 

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