January 30th, 2015

Back to BASICS: An Intervention Strategy For The Drinking College Population

Last week I summarized “Recent Drug Use Trends in the College Age Years.” In doing so, I noted that these trends were mixed, which from my perspective signals the need for implementing treatment programs specific to this population. Now I’m going to discuss college drinking.

Research has been done to identify potential intervention strategies for the drinking college population. This week I want to share information about one such program for college drinking.

Dr. G. Alan Marlatt (1941-2011), a clinical and academic psychologist who taught at the University of British Columbia, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Washington, developed a brief intervention strategy specifically designed for a drinking college population and called it “BASICS” (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students). Developed in 1993, this approach consists of three primary strategies:

  1. Identify students who have a drinking problem.
  2. Separate out those who can be diagnosed with alcohol dependence and refer them to an abstinence-based treatment program.
  3. Work with the remainder to reduce their drinking to a non-harmful level.

To accomplish this, students meet with counselors for two 45-minute sessions, one for assessment and one for feedback. During the assessment session, counselors gathered information about behaviors, especially around alcohol use in past 30 days, and assessed students’ vulnerability to alcohol dependence and readiness for change.

Then, as part of the feedback session, counselors review individual risk factors for developing problems with alcohol, debunk myths and increase the student’s base of accurate information about alcohol and its effects, offer specific strategies to reduce current and future risks related to alcohol and increase their motivation to change current risky behavior.

So what have been the results? In a four-year randomly controlled study of 366 high-risk students (+150 normal) at the University of Washington, they showed limited reduction in drinking amount and frequency, but significant reduction in problems secondary to drinking. Perhaps, this was to be expected given the focus on students making their own determinations about their drinking.

In a January 2009 interview with ScienceWatch.com, Marlatt said, “We want to help them look at their drinking objectively and give them some feedback and some healthy recommendations. We really want them to make the ultimate decisions about what to do. It’s very collaborative.”

Moving forward, it seems to me that a collaborative approach will be needed. We see college students at Kolmac, who essentially “drank themselves out of school.” If we continue to see this population, and we probably will be based on recent headlines like “Why Colleges Haven’t Stopped Binge Drinking,” it will be important to offer treatment alternatives that are designed by and for them and their families.

On a personal note, I had the pleasure of working briefly with Dr. Marlatt, whom I invited to help with this issue at Georgetown University, where I teach. His premature death in 2011 was a sad loss for the addiction field.

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