Demystifying detox: The price of binge drinking
Alcohol is the most widely used drug among college-age students, and a recent survey of University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate students reported that 54 percent of students binge drink (have five or more drinks in a sitting).
Lieutenant Ruth Ewing of the UW-Madison Police Department sees this as a problem. “Students come to UW-Madison drinking at higher rates than at other universities. They’re coming here with the expectation that this is a big party school
But being taken to detox is no party.
During the fall 2015 semester, UWPD transported 103 students—less than one percent of the student population—to a local detox facility or hospital due to high-risk drinking. More than 50 of those students were transported from inside a residence hall.
By the numbers:
- Of the more than 50 students who went to detox during the fall 2015 semester, only one drank beer
- 60 to 65% of students transported are detox are male
- $595 Detox experience cost
- $263.50 Underage drinking ticket
- $125 Cost of BASICS or Choices alcohol education class
Sam, now a second-year student majoring in psychology and biology, was transported to detox during a football game in October 2015. He drank on Friday night and was planning to “pregame” on Saturday morning but woke up later than anticipated. “I was playing catch-up with alcohol, which was not smart. I didn’t feel like I was getting a buzz so I thought I needed more,” he says. In approximately two hours, Sam drank beer, mixed drinks, and wine before going to Camp Randall.
Larry Davis, associate director of residence life at UW Housing, says that the consequences of pregaming have escalated on campus. “Unlike previous generations of college students, high-risk drinking is centered on pregaming and doing shots of hard liquor.”
Sam doesn’t remember much from that Saturday morning, but his friends recalled that he was in a zombie-like state until he couldn’t walk up the stadium steps to his seat. “I fell forward and the police saw me.”
Sam’s blood alcohol content was 0.25. “All I remember from the game is being taken out of the stadium in handcuffs. I was in front of hundreds of other students. In the moment I probably didn’t feel awkward about what was happening to me but it was not fun.” Ewing says it is department policy to handcuff any person transported to detox by UWPD.
Ewing says there are certain things that officers look for during a detox evaluation. “Students who go to detox have to be incapacitated and unable to care for themselves. If they’re not a danger to themselves or others, they won’t go to detox or the hospital.” If a student’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is greater than 0.3—the level at which death can occur—they will be transported to detox.
Sam was taken to The Detoxification Center at Tellurian around noon that day. Tellurian is a local facility not affiliated with UW-Madison that provides care and monitoring to individuals who are incapacitated due to alcohol and/or drugs.
Once at detox, cell phones are confiscated. The student is evaluated by a staff member and vitals are taken. They are assigned to a room, possibly with another person—not necessarily a student—brought in for excessive drinking. Because detox is a county-funded program outsourced to Tellurian, a student could room with any other person from Dane County who was brought in that day.
Students are not permitted to be released from Tellurian until their BAC reaches 0.0. The following day, students take part in a brief counseling session with Tellurian staff.
The cost for a one-night stay at Tellurian is $595. Sam chose not to tell his parents at that time and had to pay for his detox experience upon release, which required him to move money to cover the cost. If the student also receives an underage drinking citation from UWPD—which costs $263.50—the officer will meet with the student the next day to formally issue the citation. Ewing says coming back the next day reaches students when they’re in a better frame of mind and able to understand why they were cited and taken to detox.
“The officer fills in the gaps and can say to the student ‘Yes, the student may have received a citation but we were looking out for your well-being and safety.’ Students’ reactions run the gamut.” says Ewing. “Most understand why they went to detox and are embarrassed.”
After being released from detox, students will be contacted by the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards or UW Housing. UW-Madison is also required to notify parents when a student goes to detox, which is when Sam told his parents what happened the previous weekend.
Davis meets with students—almost all first-year students—who live in residence halls and are transported to detox and says most students don’t think about how much they’re going to drink. “If you ask them how they got to detox, they don’t know. They don’t remember where they were, what they were drinking or how much they drank.”
When UWPD responds to an intoxicated student in a residence hall, officers perform a detox evaluation to determine if the student can stay in his or her room and be checked on, or if they’re incapacitated and need medical attention or observation.
“Our house fellows and staff call UWPD whenever there is a concern about physical safety of a student,” says Davis. “We don’t want students to engage in high-risk drinking that doesn’t allow them to remember what they said, what they did and where they were, and how they behaved.”
“In reality, most students pace their drinks and alternate non-alcoholic drinks with alcoholic drinks, and drink five or fewer drinks per sitting” says Jenny Rabas, an alcohol prevention coordinator at UHS. “Being transported to detox is not a rite of passage at UW-Madison. In fact, less than one percent of our students go to detox which means that the majority of students’ peers have the opportunity to intervene and prevent them from having this experience.”
Likewise, when a student calls for help on behalf of a friend who has had too much to drink and is severely impaired—and stays with that friend until assistance arrives and cooperates with emergency responders—that student will not be subjected to disciplinary actions.
Not wanting to repeat a trip to detox, Sam is now mindful when he chooses to drink by counting drinks and slowing down when he starts to feel drunk. “For some people, blacking out is kind of a joke but detox doesn’t seem real until you’re there.”
Written by Kelsey Anderson, UHS Health Communications Specialist