April 3, 2003

Gannett Offers Drug Counseling

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When students use alcohol or other drugs in violation of the campus code of conduct, Cornell judicial administrators refer students to Gannett: Cornell University Health Services for Brief Alcohol and Screening Intervention for College Students (BASICS) as part of the judicial sanction.

The harm-reduction approach of the program aims to minimize the harmful consumption of alcohol and reduce the associated problems of students who drink and/or use drugs, according to Deborah Lewis, alcohol projects coordinator for Gannett: Cornell University Health Services.

“We don’t see alcohol and other drug use as morally right or wrong,” Lewis said. “It’s a part of society, and we see our role as helping students make the right decisions for themselves.”

BASICS is a two-session educational intervention program designed to assist students in assessing their drug and alcohol use in a nonjudgmental environment. The program provides students with the opportunity to identify risks and potential changes in their behavior to reduce future alcohol- and drug-related problems.

When BASICS began last year, 265 students were referred to the service from the judicial administrator. According to Lewis, referrals are on the rise.

“Since the last school year, referrals from the judicial administrator for alcohol education have more than doubled,” Lewis said.

BASICS is administrated by Lewis and Peter Chan, health promotion assistant for Gannett: Cornell University Health Services.

The first session of BASICS involves a 20-minute survey that asks questions about the student’s alcohol or drug use in the past 30 days.

“We try to make the student feel as comfortable as possible,” Lewis said. “When students come in expecting to be yelled at, made to feel ashamed or lectured, we spend time having the person feel at ease with our approach to alcohol and drugs.”

Lewis also emphasized that what students report in the survey remains confidential. Anything marked on the survey or discussed during the appointment cannot be released to the judicial administrator or to anyone else outside of Gannett.

In the second 60-minute consultation, students receive a feedback profile compiled from the questionnaire with personalized information about their alcohol and drug use.

The feedback profile charts the student’s drinking behavior in comparison to the behavior of the average Cornell student. The data used in compiling the profile was gathered in a random mail survey of 719 Cornell student respondents before the program was implemented.

The profile also calculates the student’s typical and peak estimated blood alcohol content (BAC) in the past month and provides a BAC table with corresponding risks at each level of intoxication. Personal risk factors, negative consequences, influences and protective factors are also examined at length in the feedback profile.

Lewis said that during the consultation, she discusses ways of minimizing harms such as throwing up and blacking out while using alcohol. She also discusses harms in terms of not performing well academically or athletically and when alcohol “gets in the way of social relationships.”

After completing the second session, a student has finished BASICS and is not required to see a counselor.

“We’re not trying to persuade anybody or win any arguments,” Lewis said. “The feedback profile is like a mirror that we hold up to a person to give them a chance to see for themselves how their behaviors compare to others.”

The program for BASICS at Cornell is based on research conducted at University of Washington and Western Washington University.

While most participants are referred to BASICS from the judicial administrator, the service is open to anyone wishing to find out more about their alcohol and drug use.

At Cornell, the program has received positive feedback. In last year’s evaluation, 52 percent of respondents who had participated in BASICS said that they would recommend BASICS to a friend. 46 percent responded that more students at Cornell should participate in BASICS.

One respondent to the BASICS evaluation commented that “the interaction was great and I talked about my habits without being labeled,” and another called it “a safe and private environment.”

One anonymous student said, “I feel BASICS is a great way to go about handling drinking in college.”

Another student noted, “BASICS is not telling you what to do.”

Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88 agreed that the core of the program’s success is its nonjudgmental approach.

“It’s such a positive experience for students,” Grant said.

Grant also said that although the University in no way endorses the use of alcohol and drugs, “if students are going to make those kinds of choices, we want them to make those decisions in the safest and healthiest way possible.”

Dr. Alan Marlatt, director for addictive behaviors research at the University of Washington, conducted the research and aided the development for BASICS in the early ’90s. He noted that in regard to underage drinking, some people question whether the harm reduction approach condones illegal drinking.

“Students know, however, the legal risk of drinking and we continue to remind them about the consequences,” Marlatt said. “If they are to continue to drink anyway, BASICS is a course that will reduce harmful consequences.”

Archived article by Janet Liao