Henehan: Abuse policy needs overhaul

Yale’s plan for a director of alcohol and substance abuse initiatives, pitched as a means of bringing together the many elements that compose a freshman’s introduction to drinking at the College, will likely not help the many students here who are struggling with drugs and alcoholism — unless, that is, the hire is accompanied by fundamental change in the University’s approach to addiction.

As a student who has struggled with addiction and who was directed to find help from Yale’s counseling services, I have witnessed firsthand the flaws of how these problems are tackled at an institutional level. It is far too easy for students to slip through the cracks and to be forced into a situation in which they would rather choose to cope with problems on their own. Although intelligent Yale students may often find it possible to manage coursework while at the same time nursing an addiction — whether it be to alcohol, pot, adderal, cocaine, prescription medications or psychedelics — these dependencies truly limit their Yale experiences. It is far too easy for students to develop maladapted coping mechanisms that prolong usage. The stressful environment of Yale reinforces it.

Solving the problem is not as simple as establishing a cohesive education program with a director to oversee all policies. It lies in teaching students to find better outlets for their stress without insisting on creating sober environments. A productive curriculum would teach students to have normal relationships with these substances from the beginning of their use, rather than allowing addictive relationships to develop on their own.

Not everyone who drinks becomes an alcoholic and not everyone who smokes a joint becomes a marijuana addict; in fact, most people do not. But for a select few, there is a tendency, be it genetic, situational or behavioral, that causes addictions of substances that alter brain chemistry. Yale’s present policy on substance-abuse incidents is to direct such students to a counselor who “educates” them on the issues and the probability of their tendency for abuse (think white-board graphs of your family’s history with alcohol indicating your own potential to become an alcoholic). Education geared toward the addict is part of the solution, but it is not the whole answer. More effort must be made toward educating those peers who support and enable these addictive tendencies. The best solution is to look for support in friends, not the institution.

First and foremost, the addicted individuals must want to change. They often do. But difficulties arise when they are faced with informing their peer groups. Yale cannot instill this spirit in its students; they must find it in themselves. Although it may be obvious that a change is necessary. For example, even after someone blacks out and does something stupid which their friends recount, the warning signs are not always headed. Many people have said “I will never drink again” after one of those nights. They may be serious about wanting to change, but once back in the social circumstances that influenced those same tendencies they quickly return to old routines and realize they still cannot control their addictions.

The key is for those addicted to know that they want change and then to initiate that change by altering the circumstances of those enabling social situations by either taking themselves out — or better yet, by letting those around them know that something is wrong.

Yale and its soon-to-be-added alcohol czar should not aim to single out the alcoholics and addicts and force them into a program or into monthly sessions with a counselor, but should teach students and the friends of those in need to recognize problems and serve as more effective support systems.

It is almost impossible to quit an addiction when one feels alone and isolated — in fact, those feelings tend to lead to continued abuse. It is only when one feels socially accepted for the changes he knows he has to make, empowered by the fact that he knows he can change and achieve a full sense of self without the crutch of drugs or alcohol. To do that, one needs to have friends who understand how to support one in one’s time of need.

Yale does need a unified policy for drugs and alcohol, but any restructuring of current methods should focus on educating the whole student body rather than on isolating individuals and forcing them into treatment. With an understanding of tendency for abuse, students can help each other to develop positive relationships with substances and avoid potentially destructive behavior that can develop into habit. Yale’s plan would benefit from considering the role that peer groups and social situations play in both enabling and controlling addiction. Friends, in the end, are truly the best support network we’ve got.

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