Twenty-year-old Lisa Coombs doesn’t remember much about her first drinking experience, except that it ended in a complete and total blackout.
It was her first high school party and Coombs, 14 at the time, didn’t recognize a single person there. Feeling uncomfortable and wanting desperately to fit in, she instantly went for the hard stuff, downing countless shots of vodka. The next thing she knew, she was waking up in an unfamiliar room with strange people she didn’t know and wondering where her clothes were.
“It was a complete nightmare,” said Coombs. But as bad as it was, it didn’t end there.
For the next six years, Coombs would spend her nights in a similar fashion: She’d go out, blow a bunch of money on booze and then not even remember it. It reached a point where it didn’t matter what day it was or what she drank, she’d end up getting drunk and blacking out.
It didn’t end until Coombs’s sisters staged an intervention and gave her an ultimatum she couldn’t refuse: Go to rehab or tell mom and dad. Coombs finally agreed to get help and realized she had a serious addiction to alcohol. After spending 35 days in rehab last summer, the third-year Ryerson journalism student hasn’t had a single drop of alcohol in almost eight months.
But for the past two weeks, Coombs wasn’t the only one abstaining from substance use at Ryerson.
On Feb. 22, RU Student Life kicked off its #14DaysDry campaign, challenging the Ryerson community to examine its consumption of alcohol and other substances like tobacco, marijuana and caffeine, as they committed to go clean for 14 days.
The campaign invited students to replace their bad habits with good ones by attending at least three of the eight scheduled activities. The activities included an alcohol budgeting exercise, Wednesday yoga classes, and a poetry slam.
“We are hoping the community considers factors about why they drink and generate support for those struggling with addiction to alcohol and substances,” said Brandon Smith, residence and life education co-ordinator and co-chair of the Ryerson student affairs committee.
Adapted from an anti-drinking campaign in the U.S., #14DaysDry is part of an emerging discussion about risky drinking among university and college students.
In recent years, numbers have been on the rise for student binge drinking, which has raised widespread concern about students’ long-term health and susceptibility to addiction.
According to the most recent data from 2012, Statistics Canada reports that one-third of young Canadians between 18 and 24 have five drinks or more in one sitting, at least once a month.
This surpasses the low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines, which recommend that men drink a maximum of three drinks a day, while women are to have no more than two.
A 2013 student-health assessment conducted by Ryerson asked its students about some of their drinking habits. It found that 28 per cent of males and 21 per cent of females reported they do not drink alcohol at all. Of the students who did drink, 55 per cent reported they drank responsibly, having four or fewer drinks the last time they partied.
The assessment also found that 33 per cent of students (who consumed alcohol at least two weeks before the survey) binge-drank to the point of forgetting where they were, what they did, or admitted doing something they regretted.
Juannittah Kamera, a registered nurse and Ryerson’s health promotion program co-ordinator, doesn’t deny that there may be students, staff and faculty with dependency or substance addictions on campus.
“It’s just not one of those things where we see it all the time or that’s blatantly obvious,” she said.
Part of the problem, said Colleen Amato, a counsellor at the Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC), is that students who are struggling with addiction are often afraid to ask for help.
“Addictions can often be wrought with judgment, fear and shame,” she said. “We (at the CSDC) seek to create a space that promotes acceptance and belonging and to bring understanding and empowerment to the area of addiction.”
To receive help, students can make an appointment with the CSDC by calling in or arriving at the centre in person.
But a student seeking help for the first time may wait up to three weeks for their first appointment with a counsellor. Outside help is also available.
In late January, a press release announced that Ryerson received $407,000 from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, which is investing $9 million every year for better mental-health and addictions services for post-secondary students.
Starting next fall, Ryerson will begin a pilot project with OCAD University and George Brown College where a support group of university-aged peer mentors, facilitators and case managers will be trained to serve students with addictions. There will also be a 24-hour support line.
As for Coombs, she couldn’t be any happier about getting help eight months ago and has a message for students who are going through the same struggle with addiction:
“There comes a stigma with being a young addict and it’s really easy to be deceitful in that you’re just a young twenty-something-year-old and you’ll grow out of it. You might not. Age doesn’t have anything to do with your actions or your way of coping. There is help out there and there are ways to fight it.”