Have you ever heard of a High-Risk Drinking Calendar? Harvard University’s Office of Alcohol & Other Drug Services publishes one annually. This is not one of those calendars with picturesque landscapes that reflect each season, nor does each month feature a different impressionistic painting. Instead, it is simple one page calendar with certain dates printed in red, amber, or green. Red dates rate the highest risk for drinking at Harvard. For example, January 28th is a red date since it coincides with the Freshman Formal. Wait a minute, most freshman are under the legal age for drinking, so maybe this is a mistake? It’s not. Well maybe Harvard has such high standards that no one is accepted until they apply at least three times. This would make most freshmen at least 21 years old, but this is not the case either. The risk level is derived from data drawn from Harvard University Police reports dated between January 2006 and June 2010 as well as Harvard’s Stillman Infirmary records dated between September 2005 and June 2010. This calendar does not intend to predict high risk drinking, but it does indicate the occasions and events that were associated with risky drinking in the past four or five years.
As I look over the color coded dates this fall, I was surprised to see that this year’s Harvard – Yale football game at Harvard on November 20th was an amber or moderate risk day. Somehow, I expected this to be red. After all, crimson is the school’s color. Since I live near the Charles River, I was also interested in the amber dates for the Head of the Charles Regatta. Perhaps I’ve been wrong to assume that all sporting events seem to be soaked in alcohol. Evidently, other events on the academic calendar carry greater risks. For example, the fall and spring Harvard Hungama are red dates. I don’t know the meaning of the word Hungama, but I now know that heavy drinking happens at this event according to the calendar. The house formals in December and May are green indicating potential risk. Also, May 15th to 26th coincide with the end of exams and commencement and these dates were colored green for potential risk. I suppose the potential for drinking could go either way with exams: celebrating success or drowning one’s sorrows for failing.
Other colleges and universities probably have similar ways of assessing the periods of high, moderate, and potential risk for drinking in the student population, and if they don’t it would be very helpful to their students if the did so.
Knowing about the relative risk for alcohol related problems extends beyond academia. State and local police departments typically increase surveillance for drunk drivers during certain holidays. I read an article in the local newspaper yesterday in which a local bar owner touted the bump in business that the football season brings. His Sunday business shows a dramatic increase during football season. A few years ago, the Red Sox won the World Series. That certainly was cause for celebration, but the free flowing alcohol during and after the game caused a near riot in Boston. These were avid fans, not down and out alcoholics. Most drank responsibly throughout their lives, but that night their heavy drinking plus the mob mentality equaled a tragedy in the midst of triumph. The elated but inebriated crowd became unruly and the situation worsened to the point that the police had to fire tear gas to restore order. Sadly, a canister accidentally struck and killed a young woman bystander watching the festivities. The death cannot be blamed on any one individual even though many fans that night were plastered. I believe that every intoxicated person in that crowd probably deserves some share of the blame. A little bit of impaired judgment in a lot of people caused the problem. Therefore, whether your team wins the World Series, the World Cup, or whatever, toast them, but do so responsibly.
In the end, it is the individual, not a college or a cop, who must insure responsible drinking. Perhaps everyone who drinks should take a moment to consider the particular days of the year, the month, or the week that put them at greatest risk for problem drinking. Maybe you only drink once a year to deal with Thanksgiving dinner at the in-laws or maybe you only drink at parties. Knowing when you drink might give insights to why you drink. Sometimes problem drinking is a symptom of something else, for example, that dismal relationship with your mother-in-law. In my experience, alcohol hurts relationships more than it helps them, but don’t think that I’m against all drinking. I’m only against drinking that causes problems—what we call almost alcoholic drinking.