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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

Alcoholism At USC: The Science Of Addiciton

In this four-part series, USC Annenberg Media takes a look at alcohol abuse on campus and how students can get help.

Alcoholism is just as much a genetic and mental disease as it is social. Just because there's an association with partying in a college culture doesn't mean it can't turn into a serious problem, according to USC Doctoral Candidate Rubin Khoddam. 

"It doesn't mean it's not alcoholism, it doesn't mean it doesn't hurt your body, it doesn't mean that it's not dangerous," he said.

The brain doesn't fully develop until about age 25, which can be a serious problem for college-age drinkers, and it's been estimated that about 40% of college students are heavy drinkers, said Khoddam. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause the frontal lobes of the brain to shrink, which impairs thinking skills.

Nicholas Vrataric works with the CLARE Foundation, an organization that provides recovery programs for those with substance abuse disorders. He says alcohol and drug abuse is often the result of bigger issues.

“The trouble is the relief becomes the problem. It’s like somebody jumping into the ocean because they’re on fire, only to find out they can’t swim," he said.

Vrataric pointed out that the issue of calling the disease "alcoholism" is becoming increasingly complicated. The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) doesn’t recognize the term “addiction.” Rather, it says alcohol abuse is an example of a behavioral health disorder and it goes on a spectrum from mild or moderate to severe.

Struggling with what to call this issue is not limited to college students. When USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was recently fired, no one wanted to say the words "alcohol abuse." USC Athletic Director Pat Haden referred to Sarksian at a press conference as, “not healthy,” which is putting it lightly. “The drugs and alcohol go to the very control centers that tell you—you’ve probably had enough, and it starts working, so that there is no enough,” said Vrataric.

Alcoholism is a family disease—which is to say, it’s often genetic. About 40-60% of alcoholism cases are genetic, according to Khoddam. For USC student Nikki Marquez, the issue hits very close to home. 

“My dad is an alcoholic,” she said. “Well, he is, but he doesn’t think he is… he went to rehab a few times, he got kicked out of the house a few times, and my sister has flat out asked him to pick her over drinking and he said no. My mom finally had enough my junior year of college, which was last year, so she filed for divorce last September."

And because alcoholism is a genetic disease, she worries about her own drinking.

“I question myself a lot about whether or not I should be drinking—sometimes I just won’t,” she added.

Experts say college students in particular should be aware of the physical and psychological impacts of heavy alcohol use.

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