POSNER: Beyond “stupidity”

Out of Line

I heard rumors about a drug incident in Durfee Hall well before the story appeared in print. In late March, reports of an acid trip gone wrong made news around Old Campus, and the campus-wide email from Yale Health director Michael Rigsby made an enigmatic reference to events involving LSD, cocaine and heroin.  The resulting coverage (“Incident draws attention to drug use,” April 21) implied that administrators would decide consequences for those involved in the distribution and use of the drugs. Comments on the piece voiced harsh condemnation of those involved, including advocating expelling students caught using drugs and pleading that they not “throw away” their opportunities at Yale.

PosnerCIn August, Berkeley Master Marvin Chun delivered a lecture to newly arrived freshman to address “Why smart people make bad choices.” On most levels, the reported drug incident in Durfee would appear a perfect case study. Master Chun cited the cognitive biases that incline us to think of ourselves as exceptions to the rule. But it’s also important to acknowledge the external factors that incline students, especially those considered to be academically high-achieving, to do things like LSD in a Yale dorm.

Substance use and the desire to engage in risky behaviors don’t usually occur in a vacuum of bravado and experimentation. When the benefits of hard drug use outweigh the potential risks for an informed, intelligent student, it signals dissatisfaction with an emotional or social status quo. Drug use can easily be motivated by a need to stave off feelings like stress, grief or apathy. This type of explanation provides a more understanding, nuanced motivation for the use of drugs than just “stupidity.” It also requires that we find fault in a system bigger than just the individual who ingests the hallucinogens.

“Drugs can be fun” doesn’t seem a sufficient explanation for why Yale students — for whom the stakes are pretty high — choose to use cocaine, LSD or other substances. There are other variables in the equation. The fact that the rate of at least one-time drug use at Yale College has been more than one-third the school population in recent years suggests that other forces endemic to campus life might encourage students towards substance use.

I’d suggest that the immense pressure under which students operate — academic, social, familial and extracurricular stress being primary factors — plays into these ostensibly “stupid” decisions, just as it contributes to many of the issues with our campus culture. Drug use or the proclivity for frequent risk-taking behaviors can be seen as another manifestation of the substance dependence fostered by college life, like addictions to caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol that also begin on Yale’s campus.

College becomes an important exploratory ground for coping mechanisms because — for many, at least — we’re tested by a workload and set of demands beyond that of high school. Yale obviously attempts to play a role in guiding how we deal with this stress. Libraries on campus close earlier on weekends to encourage active social lives, a legitimate tool for dealing with academic stress. But likewise, risky and unhealthy behaviors like smoking, drugs and alcohol do have legitimate functions as coping mechanisms and self-medication. Those students who tend to habitual or frequent use of these substances likely do so because they haven’t found the relief they feel they need in healthier processes for alleviating pressure and emotional strife.

This isn’t a determinist argument to explain away accountability for poor choices, and I do believe those who distribute and consume illegal substances on Yale’s campus should face consequences. I also believe, though, that the intersecting forces that shape substance use and abuse should be the primary focus as Yale decides these consequences, as well as the overarching policies for addressing what Rigsby called “a growing health risk on college campuses.”

The University clearly expresses an attitude that addresses drug use as a health risk and seeks to provide help for those using or “tempted to try” drugs, as the email states. Any effort to focus on prevention would be remiss if it didn’t consider the enormous influence of pressure and workload on perpetuating unhealthy habits. Those who decide policy and disciplinary consequences for substance use should keep in mind the Yale forces that influence drug culture.

Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Her columns run on Thursdays. Contact her at caroline.posner@yale.edu .