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Tip 18:          Problem Drinking

My roommate drinks everyday and is constantly getting in trouble.  I swear she must be an alcoholic but I don’t know for sure.  What’s the difference between an alcoholic and a problem drinker?

Mindy W.,   Michigan State University, Senior

My father drinks every night when he gets home.  On weekends he really gets hammered.  Then he got a DUI the other night.  My mother swears he’s just a problem drinker but I think he is an alcoholic.  What do you think?

Tripper,   University of South Dakota, Sophomore

OK so I have a few problems when I drink.  All my friends do and everybody does once in awhile.  This is college and I am going to have fun before I have to hit the real world.  What’s the problem?

Sydney M.,   Michigan State University, Senior

Assessing whether or not someone is addicted to alcohol is impossible within the confines of this book.  Assessment is an in-depth process that should be conducted by a professional in the field of alcohol and other drug treatment.  The fact that someone drinks everyday does not necessarily mean the person is an alcoholic. For instance someone could drink just one glass of wine every evening with dinner.  That behavior is not only non-alcoholic it may even provide some health benefits.  On the other hand, an alcoholic cannot consistently control his/her consumption to simply one drink an evening.  Mindy, the behaviors that you and Tripper describe are certainly reason for concern.  Alcoholism is defined as continuing to drink despite the fact that the drinking is causing psychological, physical, social, emotional and financial problems accompanied by an inability to consistently control the quantity and frequency of drinking.  


Quite simply, a problem drinker is someone who experiences problems due to his/her drinking. Although there is a small percentage of college students who are alcoholic, many more are high-risk problem drinkers.  (Don’t forget though, most college students abstain or consume alcohol at a low risk level!)  Most of these problem drinkers will “mature out” of the risky drinking.  Sydney, most people including college students do not experience problems due to their drinking. Although you may discontinue your heavy drinking after college, the problems you are currently experiencing may be limiting your academic success plus you are placing yourself at great risk for a serious alcohol related impairment problem.  Two of the leading causes of death for college students are drinking and driving as well as falls: falling from balconies, falling off roofs, falling down stairs, etc.  One of the goals of college alcohol education programs is to assist those problem drinkers in minimizing if not eradicating problems due to drinking. (See Appendix:  Identifying Alcohol Problems)


Tripper and Mindy, if you are going to discuss your concerns with your father and roommate, avoid using the labels alcoholic or problem drinker.  It would be more productive to talk about the behavior rather than labeling them.  Try, “it looks like your drinking is causing you some problems.”  This terminology may help defuse some of the defensiveness they may feel if you confront them.  Also, a campus counselor may be able to help you with your discussions.




If you are waking up in the morning with regrets about things you did due to your drinking the night before, then clearly alcohol is causing you problems.  

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