Has binge drinking become normal?

Thirty seconds can change everything.

Over time, Dianne Sheehan has pieced together what happened to her son Nick before he fell to his death from a residence window at St. Francis Xavier University.

She knows it was shortly after 9 p.m. on March 8, 2009 when he fell. She remembers, three hours later, receiving the knock on her door at her home in Fredericton that every parent dreads.

Nick Sheehan died after a fall from a St. Francis Xavier residence window in 2009. (Submitted)

She knows he was partying that night and took drugs. Nick didn’t have much experience with drugs and his body had a psychotic reaction when he took them.

His friends have told her Nick was standing outside a room on the fourth floor of Lane Hall talking to a female resident.

From what Sheehan understands, 30 seconds later, her son was dead.

The Sheehans aren’t the only family mourning the loss of a son.

Almost a year ago today, on Oct. 24, 2010, St. Thomas University student Andrew Bartlett died from an accidental fall in his apartment building after a night of drinking, which police determined was a contributing factor to his fall.

Bartlett, 21, had just made the school’s volleyball team and had been attending a rookie party meant to initiate new team members.

And on Sept. 6 of this year, 19-year-old Jonathan Andrews was found unresponsive in his Acadia University residence room after a night of heavy drinking. He was transported to the QEII Health Science Centre in Halifax where he later died.

None of the three were characterized as party animals in obituaries and by friends after their deaths. In all three cases, it appears as if something went terribly wrong.

Their deaths have woke up university administrators in the Atlantic provinces, some of whom are asking if they can do more to steer students away from partying and excessive alcohol consumption.

In a country where, according to the Canadian Study on Substance Abuse, students are binge drinking on a regular basis before they reach university, some are saying the problem goes beyond universities.

A year later

The topic of Andrew Bartlett’s death is still uncomfortable on the St. Thomas University campus a year later.

Bartlett, who was from the small picturesque town of St. Andrews, N.B., was supposed to graduate last May.

Friends said he planned to become a teacher and loved STU so much that he didn’t want to graduate.

He’s been remembered as someone who made friends quickly and by another friend as the most responsible person she knew. His family, who declined to be interviewed for this story, have set up a scholarship fund in his name.

Bartlett was proud to have made the volleyball team in his final year and friends remembered him skipping trips to the campus bar to go to practice.

During his last night, he was with his team at an initiation party that started on campus.

Andrew Bartlett died on Oct. 24, 2010 after an accidental fall. (Submitted)

After Bartlett’s death, reports of the party led to an investigation by the university. Former university president Dennis Cochrane made it clear the team wasn’t responsible for Bartlett’s death, but suspended the men’s volleyball team for the rest of the season for violating the university’s hazing policies.

The university also drafted a new code of conduct after Bartlett’s death, which could penalize students for inappropriate behaviour on-campus or off-campus, if they are representing the university in some way.

Barry Craig, vice-president academic at STU, said Bartlett’s death wasn’t the trigger for the new code of conduct – but it certainly accelerated the process.

“That wasn’t the first time we thought of this, that wasn’t the first time we had an alcohol-related incident.

“But it was certainly the one that said, right, okay, we can’t keep putting this off. We have to deal with this.”

The draft code addresses hazing, although Ryan Hamilton, a hazing expert at the University of New Brunswick, says it could take more than a set of policies to eliminate it from university campuses.

“People die every single year because of things related to hazing and usually related to alcohol at universities. It happens year after year after year.

You would think that if somebody dying was enough, it would stop happening.

“The reality is, it’s not a simple problem to solve. Drinking is a legal act, alcohol is readily available [and] there’s a culture within universities where alcohol is promoted. You can’t walk around the campus without seeing drink special signs.”

This year, for the first time, UNB asked Hamilton to meet with every varsity sports team to talk about hazing at the beginning of the year.

“I wish it was enough. I wish the educational interventions that I provide were enough to stop [hazing], but I think it’s more complicated than that.

“It takes a lot of people seeing the problem and working toward solutions than a policy document or a one-hour session.”

Changing the culture around drinking

STU has also cracked down on events that focus on alcohol consumption.

Each year, Harrington Hall residence – where Bartlett attended the hazing party, according to reports – celebrates April 6th day.

The day became legend 24 years ago after former students skipped a concert and drank all day.

The drinking starts at midnight, continues all day long and is seen as a bonding event for the house.

For past April 6th days, house committees at Harrington Hall could use money from recycled bottles to buy alcohol for those older than 19.

But that’s no longer allowed. The university has also cracked down on students going to class drunk on this day and on other days when other residences have similar, 24-hour celebrations.

“[Drinking] is probably part of everybody’s university experience or most people…but when you look around and you see that people die from some kinds of behaviour…it’s not as easy to laugh off anymore,” Craig said.

“I accept the fact that young people in university are going to drink too much from time to time, but as a university administrator, it would be irresponsible for me to say, ‘Yeah, this group of students on this day should start drinking at midnight and drink all day long and that’s a matter of no concern to me.’”

A thirst for life

Jonathan Andrews was a scholarship winner who played rugby, swam and loved to travel.

His obituary says he worked three jobs in high school in order to make enough money to travel to places his parents hadn’t been to before.

While attending Western Canada High School in Calgary, he would give what was left of his lunch to homeless people hanging out around the dumpster behind the school.

Andrews died the day before classes would have started at Acadia University, where he was set to study sciences.

His obituary says the last thing he told his parents was that he wanted to make as many friends as possible during those first two weeks.

Acadia’s orientation week activities are dry, but residences are not, university spokesman Scott Roberts said. Drinking games are prohibited and only residents older than 19 are supposed to have alcohol in their rooms.

The investigation into Andrews’ death was conducted by the RCMP and Roberts said he isn’t in a position to release more details than are already available.

“The only thing that I have as information…is what the RCMP reported at the time,” he said.

Since Andrews’ death, the university has asked Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief public health officer, to investigate what policies are in place at Acadia to discourage binge drinking and which policies can be improved.

Jonathan Andrews was found unresponsive in his Acadia residence room on Sept. 6 after a night of heavy drinking. He later died in hospital. (Submitted)

“Our plan is to receive his report in whatever form it comes and share it with our community and implement changes that we can,” Roberts said.

Students are in Nova Scotian hospitals on a “regular basis” from binge drinking

Strang’s been Nova Scotia’s chief public health officer for the last four years and isn’t afraid to sound alarm bells when he thinks something’s wrong.

He says half of university students in Nova Scotia binge drink, defined as more than five drinks on one occasion, at least once a month.

“Nova Scotia has some of the highest rates of binge drinking in general in the country,” he said.

“Nova Scotia universities are known as party universities. We need to step back and question, is that really what we want our universities to be celebrated for?”

While Strang admits Andrews’ death was a tragic wake-up call for the university to re-examine its policies, he’s quick to point out that Andrews’ situation is the worst-case scenario.

Many other students deal with less severe consequences of binge drinking and excessive partying and end up in Nova Scotian hospitals on a regular basis, he said.

“There are certainly not [many] deaths but there are injuries and people who are made extremely ill and end up in emergency rooms through acute alcohol intoxication on a regular, if not weekly, basis.”

Part of this problem is that binge drinking has become normalized on campus over time, he said.

“It used to be more of a male behaviour, but now young women are adopting those binge drinking habits and have about the same rates of binge drinking as young men do. That’s concerning because young women who are intoxicated are especially vulnerable.”

Dr. Robert Strang says binge drinking on campus has become normalized. (Tom Bateman/AQ)

Strang expects to present the first draft of his findings within the next couple of weeks. While his work has focused on Acadia, he plans to use the findings to start a conversation about partying at other Nova Scotia universities.

But he recognizes it will take more than a report or a set of new policies to change attitudes about binge drinking on campus.

He wants to ask questions about the alcohol industry’s presence on the Acadia campus and get all three levels of government involved to regulate drinking establishments and hold the alcohol industry accountable.

Without addressing the environment students are in, you won’t be able to change their behaviours, Strang said.

“It’s not just the tragic death of one kid, it’s every day, every week, families and individuals are impacted by alcohol in Nova Scotia or across the country.

“We need to wake up and say, there’s a problem here. If we see a problem, are we prepared to do something about it or not?”

A good kid who made an error in judgement

More than two years after Nick Sheehan’s death, his mother still doesn’t have all the answers about what happened that night – and she realizes she may never have them all.

But she’s come to terms with his death.

“I would have loved to have called my son that evening, but it wouldn’t have changed anything,” she said.

“He was a good kid, who was a hard worker who made an error in judgement.”

At St. Francis Xavier, university administrators won’t link any changes to university policy with Nick’s death.

“We’ve been on a path of managing behaviour and educating students. We’ve been on that path even before the tragedy of the student falling from the window,” said Keith Publicover, the university’s vice-president of recruitment and student experience.

“Our work in educating students and reviewing policy and procedure is not linked to that incident.”

While Sheehan likes the idea of having codes of conduct that guide student behaviour, she’s not convinced they can prevent another death like her son’s, Bartlett’s or Andrews’, from happening.

“A code of conduct would be wonderful but you can’t follow these kids every second of the day,” she said.

Her youngest daughter just began her first year at the University of Ottawa. People have asked her if she’s calling her daughter every day because of what happened to Nick. But she’s not worried.

What does worry her is that no one in her daughter’s residence held a meeting to talk about responsible drinking after Andrews’ death last month.

“When something like that happens, I don’t think it needs to be a huge lecture but I think it should be brought to the kids’ attention,” she said.

“It’s nothing more than it’s a reminder to kids to think before you drink. Be cautious and make smart decisions.”

It will take a long time to change the culture around drinking, which Sheehan said is a different type of drinking than when she was in university.

Until then, the best advice she can offer students is to be smart about the choices they make.

“Kids are going to be kids no matter what. You pray to God you taught your kids the right things and that they’ll use their judgement.”

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  • Show Comments (1)

  • Wilfred Williams

    I've no intention of detracting from the tragic nature of this article, but thought I'd draw attention to this bite – 'his body had a psychotic reaction when he took them.' How can the body have a psychotic reaction?

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