Huguely trial highlights alcohol abuse at colleges, universities
There's little question that George Huguely V, the former University of Virginia student on trial for murder, had a problem with alcohol.

He had been arrested twice for drinking-related infractions, one of them violent, in his early 20s. And he admits to consuming at least 15 drinks — and likely had more, witnesses said — the day he confronted Yeardley Love at her off-campus apartment in 2010, assaulting her so severely she later died, according to prosecutors.

But trial testimony over the past two weeks from witnesses, most of them former U.Va. students, has repeatedly shown that Huguely, now 24, was part of a college culture where some young people drink before working on papers, "pregame" before going to bars and drink to get drunk almost every time.

"It's just an epidemic" nationwide, said Mike Gimbel, who runs a substance abuse education program, based at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, for athletes and Maryland students. He gave a presentation at Love's alma mater, the Notre Dame Preparatory School, after her death.

The alcohol abuse starts in high school, with kids imbibing on the weekends, and frequently grows out of control once they're out from under their parents' supervision, prevention experts said. They added that shows like MTV's "Real World" and "Jersey Shore" and annual lists of top party colleges add fuel to the fire, feeding an impression that everyone gets wasted all the time.

That perception is actually worse than the reality, according to national drinking data. And that's part of the problem, treatment professionals said, because moderate drinkers feel pressure to keep pace with the so-called party animals.

Alcoholic exploits make for good gossip, and they tend to spread fast and wide, said Susan Bruce, director of the Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, which is based on the Charlottesville campus and which studies trends throughout the country. Excessive drinking "seems normal," she said, "because it's dramatic and it gets a lot of attention and it makes it sound like everyone's doing it."

While it's not everyone, it's still a lot. Roughly 80 percent of college students drink, and half of them "engage in heavy episodic consumption," also known as binge drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Combine that with the negative consequences — increased risks for violence and sexual assault, class failures, arrests, injuries and embarrassment — and some educators are now cautioning against sending teens away to school, where they can't be easily watched over.

"For the first time in my career," said Gimbel, "I'm advising parents not to send their kids off to college, because its nothing but a big party."

Peer pressure

While some campus education and prevention initiatives, like those offered by U.Va.'s Gordie Center, have helped reduce alcohol abuse and the associated consequences among college students over the past decade or so, the national numbers are still disturbing.

An NIAAA report released in 2009 shows that alcohol-related deaths of people ages 18 to 24 were up 14 percent to 1,825 in 2005, compared with roughly 1,605 in 1998. And the number of students reporting a DWI arrest skyrocketed 46 percent during the same time period, to 3.36 million from 2.3 million.

Who's doing the drinking varies, but there are representatives from all groups, educators said: jocks, Greeks, nerds and socialites alike. Athletes, along with fraternity and sorority members, tend to be considered the stereotypical abusers, however, with each falling prey to peer pressure.

"The thing about athletes is the team is so important," said Bruce, and that puts a lot of stress on students to fit in.

Studies, including a 2001 examination by the Harvard School of Public Health, have shown that athletes tend to drink more than their non-athlete peers and to experience more negative effects.

And among athletes, lacrosse players are among the biggest partiers, according to a National Collegiate Athletic Association report published this year looking at substance use among college athletes. The report was based on responses to the association's 2009 survey of 20,474 student athletes in 23 championship sports.

The survey found that male and female lacrosse players are more likely than any other kind of athlete to take amphetamines like Adderall, which many at U. Va., including Love, were prescribed for attention deficit disorder. And roughly 95 percent of the country's male lacrosse players drank, the study claimed. Among women players, 85 percent consumed alcohol.

Both Love and Huguely were lifelong lacrosse players, and they traveled among a tight-knit crew of other athletes, many of whom grew up together in the same Mid-Atlantic prep school circles. Several witnesses during Huguely's trial said they had known Love for years.