Students With Drinking Problems Think They Can't Cope, UF Research Shows

November 20, 1997

GAINESVILLE---College students who feel unable to cope with bad moods are much more likely than their peers to become problem drinkers, a new University of Florida study indicates.

"We were interested in finding why drinking becomes a problem for some students," said Jon Kassel, a clinical psychologist in UF's College of Health Professions.

"We found answers to 'ability to cope' questions to be better predictors of problem drinking than other important information, such as whether the person is depressed or anxious, and as good a predictor as knowing how much alcohol a person consumes," he said.

Kassel presented his findings Friday at the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy conference in Miami.

Despite legal restrictions, alcohol flows freely through the college social scene. For many students, it poses few problems: They have a beer now and then but still complete school work, get along well with friends and family and don't drive drunk. But for other students, alcohol spells trouble: They skip classes because they are hung over; they avoid people who criticize their drinking; they get into fights or get arrested.

In the UF research, 100 students from an introductory psychology class filled out questionnaires designed to reveal how they coped with difficulties, whether they expected their efforts to control their mood would be successful and whether they were problem drinkers or suffered from anxiety or depression. All of the students acknowledged having had at least one alcoholic drink during the two months before filling out their final questionnaires.

Kassel, an assistant professor of clinical and health psychology, and two UF graduate students, Shannon Jackson and Marina Unrod, used statistical techniques to determine which factors were related to problem drinking.

"Previous research has shown that people use drugs or alcohol when they do not have more effective ways of coping with problems," Kassel said. "But nobody has looked at it from this angle: Does a person's perception of his ability to cope play a role in problem drinking?

"What we found is that people who had low expectations of being able to handle bad moods or situations were more prone to having problems with alcohol," Kassel said.

Kassel suggests problem drinkers should be taught new coping strategies, such as how to meet problems head-on rather than ignore them and how to enlist the support of friends and family. "But they also need to believe these ways will be effective," he said. "In other words, you might have the ability to cope, but if you don't believe it works, you might turn to alcohol instead."

Kassel said it would take more research to determine whether problem drinkers in the general population also believe they cannot cope well with problems.

"College students sometimes behave differently than the world around them, but I suspect we would have similar findings if we surveyed a cross-section of the public," he said.

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(For more information contact Victoria White, Health Science Center Communications, 352/344-2738 or E-mail: vickiwhite@xtalwind.net )

University of Florida

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