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BASICS Attempts to Stop Binge Drinking; Features Survey, Personalized Counseling

By Richa Maheshwari

In a continued effort to promote healthy attitudes toward drinking on a campus often criticized for its alcohol policies in the past, MIT is piloting a new alcohol program called Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS).

The program gives all freshman the chance to submit a nine-question online survey on alcohol consumption, and pays them $25 in return. Based on their answers, they may then be asked to partake in two voluntary counseling sessions offered by MIT Medical.

Harm-reduction approach

BASICS is modeled after a successful study done at the University of Washington in Seattle. Four years after a similar program began, it was found that the rate of alcohol-related problems was 50 percent lower in students who participated in the program than those who did not.

The effectiveness of the program lies in the fact that it is not a typical lecture on alcohol. Rather, it tailors the counseling sessions to fit the needs of each individual student.

“The program will help students identify what they are not happy with and how to go about changing it,” said Carol Orme-Johnson, assistant dean and director of mediation at MIT. The new method of educating the students is referred to as the “harm-reduction approach.”

The program aims to reduce occurrences of excessive drinking on campus, without aspiring to the outlandish goal of eliminating alcohol consumption completely. Adam Silk, a psychiatrist at MIT medical and coordinator of the program, believes that the success of this program lies in the fact that it does not focus on abstinence.

“College students who are already drinking are unlikely to want to stop drinking entirely. However, they might want to drink and avoid some of the more unpleasant consequences,” he said.

Although the program will help those who do want to abstain from alcohol achieve their goal, it is prepared to deal with the realistic possibility of educating students on reducing the negative consequences of drinking.

“BASICS is unique because it seeks to reduce harm that may come from drinking by first identifying people that may have had those experiences in the past and then offering them counseling on how to avoid them in the future. It achieves this in a very individual and non-confrontational manner,” said Rebecca M. Grochow ’01.

All coordinators of the program agree that the “non-judgmental” manner of the program will be particularly applicable for MIT students.

“We are not operating BASICS as a research study and will have no control group -- the point being to offer counseling to all students whose experiences indicate that it might be beneficial. Therefore, we will not be able to demonstrate ‘success’ with scientific certainty. But if any student reports that it has been helpful, that will make it worth it,” Orme-Johnson said.

Students’ confidentiality is assured

The program aspires to prevent situations where students are put in the difficult situation of deciding whether or not to go to MIT Medical when dealing with a student who is intoxicated.

“Confidential medical transport is closing the barn door after the cow escapes. This program will hopefully help students so they are not put in such a situation to begin with,” Silk said.

Students who participate in BASICS are guaranteed the same level of confidentiality that any mental health service provides under Massachusetts patient/therapist privilege legal umbrella. Since participants are awarded money, the study is not conducted with complete anonymity.

According to Dean For Student Life Larry G. Benedict, the funds from the program come from the Institute’s general operating budget, and are in no way related to the $1.25 million scholarship established by MIT in the name of Scott S. Krueger ’01. The scholarship was part of the settlement reached with Krueger’s parents last year after he died of alcohol poisoning in 1997.