The tragic conclusion of the search for University of Virginia student Hannah Graham reminds us of the vulnerability of young adults in college. Indeed, this academic year has already spawned tragic tales of missing, injured and dead college students spanning schools across the country.
While each case has its own particularities - and the ones in the Graham case remain unknown - many involve alcohol. For example, the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) points out that alcohol consumption affects most every college campus and every college student, whether or not they themselves choose to drink.
- 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes.
Additional data from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) reveals that such drinking may begin early during the college experience. According to the national survey, approximately one-third of teens are experimenting with risky behaviors - many for the first time - during their first semester at college. For example, roughly one-third of current college students surveyed reported drinking alcohol (37 percent), engaging in intimate sexual behavior (37 percent), or having sexual intercourse (32 percent) during their first semester at college.
Notably, among these teens, one-quarter to nearly half report engaging in these behaviors for the first time.
- Drinking alcohol = 26 percent
CARE and SADD also discovered that even high school students may be engaging in risky behavior on college campuses. Roughly one in six surveyed teens (16 percent) who had been on an overnight college admissions visit reported drinking alcohol during the visit. Teens also reported engaging in sex or other intimate sexual behavior (17 percent), using drugs other than alcohol (5 percent) or driving while impaired (2 percent) during their overnight college visit.
But numbers alone don't do justice to the loss of young life. More compelling are case studies documented on CompelledToAct.com, such as the 2013 deaths of 19-year-old Boston University student Anthony Barksdale II, who died from alcohol poisoning after a fraternity party; 19-year-old Stony Brook University student Jocelyn Pascucci, who was discovered in the lobby of a New York City building dead of a heart condition exacerbated by heavy drinking; and 18-year-old University of Idaho student Joseph Wiederrick, who died of hypothermia after leaving a fraternity party where he was drinking.
It's every parent's worst nightmare. But there are steps every mom and dad can take to make it less likely that their child will engage in risky behavior fueled by alcohol.
Dr. Robert Turrisi at Penn State University says, "It is well known that fewer problems develop for every year that heavy drinking is delayed. Our research over the past decade shows that parents can play a powerful role in minimizing their teens' drinking during college when they talk to their teens about alcohol before they enter college."
Experts at CARE and SADD also believe that parents can make a difference by taking these steps.
• Talking with their students about alcohol use and what role, if any, alcohol use is playing with regard to their academic, athletic or social performance.
• Pointing out the links between college alcohol use and injury and sexual assaults.
• Emphasizing that many college students build a rewarding social environment without drinking or engaging in other risk behaviors.
• Clearly communicating expectations for responsible behavior and sound achievement
• Encouraging on-campus connections with caring adults, such as a faculty member, coach, counselor, or member of the student affairs or chaplaincy staff
And what about those high school students? Here again parents can help set the stage for a healthy and safe college visit by accompanying their teen and staying nearby and by discussing choices and role playing how their young person might respond to potentially risky situations.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, some 21 million students were expected to attend American colleges and universities this fall, an increase of about 5.7 million since fall 2000. With so many young lives at stake, there's no time like the present for action. And parents are critical in making sure their children return home from being gone.