The dark side of the UK’s student drinking culture

Students, partying and drinking have become so intertwined that we rarely stop to consider the impact it can have.

The student experience has long been seen as a booze-soaked one, and attitudes towards student drinking tend to assume that it’s normal for those attending university to consume alcohol excessively.

But what happens when it goes wrong?

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One student who suffered as a result of this lifestyle is Charlie Martina, president of the University of Liverpool’s Sober Society and sobriety blogger at overtheinfluence.co.uk.

For Charlie her student life was always tied to drinking, and, like so many students, when she made the move from home to university she found it more natural than ever.

Now working towards a Philosophy MA at the University of Liverpool, she looks back on her former drinking days as an undergraduate: “I studied for an undergraduate degree in Liverpool from 2016 to 2019, and I liked to go out with my friends. I liked to drink.

“That was something I thought was fun. It was like my main hobby was going out, which it is for a lot of young people, especially students.”

But within the stress and turmoil of university and life in general, her drinking was never something she reflected on.

Charlie Martina. Image: Remy Greasley

“I’ve always struggled with my mental health, but I never considered alcohol’s place in my life as I would think ‘I’ve not got an alcohol problem, I’ve got a mental health problem’.”

The effects of alcohol were not limited to nights out and it began to affect her studies.

She explains: “I feel I never really went to university in my undergraduate years; I never put in time or effort to get to know my lecturers or anything.

“I did a lot of cramming in my last year of university, so my sleeping pattern was the opposite. I would be awake at night and sleep throughout most of the day.

“I wasn’t eating well; I wasn’t exercising, the only time I would go out would be to drink.

“I couldn’t get a job, so I was on universal credit for those months and I barely had any money.

“I was just so miserable.”

Now the problem is obvious to her, but back then it wasn’t so clear and it didn’t stop with graduation.

She explained: “I just had no direction. I wasn’t really doing anything during the day. I didn’t have a job.

“I would think of myself as being nice and would go to the shop to buy three bottles of wine for us to share, and then I’d end up drinking most of it myself.”

Her first serious intervention came surprisingly via her boyfriend’s mum: “I was going to do some nannying for the neighbours, this was on the 27 December, after Christmas when obviously everyone is drinking.

“I remember the night before I was crying and shouting and getting really emotional.

“Then the morning after, my boyfriend’s mum was like ‘can I have a word with you guys’.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but when you’re hungover and someone is like ‘we need to talk about something,’ it’s terrifying.

“My heart dropped, I felt sick, I went to the bathroom I was just waiting there, avoiding them.

“I could hear my boyfriend through the wall. He said ‘Oh yeah, what’s up,’ and [his mum] said ‘I’m just going to wait for Charlie if you don’t mind.’ I was like ‘I can’t deal with this.’

“So I went in. She said to me ‘I don’t know if I can let you nanny for the neighbours if you’re this mentally suffering and you’re drinking a lot. Children are really precious and I don’t want to let you do something that I’ll regret.’

“I would rather have been on fire than in that moment. It was so, so bad.

“And it’s not the worst intervention I’ve ever had. The thing is she wasn’t even saying give up forever, people don’t assume that’s an option unless you’re drinking is as bad as the stereotype.”

What can be done to help struggling students?

Charlie founded the University of Liverpool’s Sober Society last year.

Charlie’s story isn’t a solitary one, yet given how widespread student drinking is it’s difficult to know where to start to bring about change.

She says: “The student guild have a lot of campaigns and they really care about being inclusive, but it’s just not the same with drinking.

“I think that needs to change. I’m not saying it’s necessarily their fault because I think we’ve all been brainwashed into thinking alcohol is great and drugs are bad.

“But I think they could be doing more.”

Charlie has also sought to bring about awareness herself.

She founded the University of Liverpool’s Sober Society last year to create a place for those who might not fit the typical mould of student.

It’s a group that brings together non-drinking students and puts on regular alcohol-free events for students looking to avoid the booze such as karaoke nights, baking competitions and even more introspective, meditative events.

It currently has around sixty members.

She also writes a column on sobriety for overtheinfluence.co.uk, a podcast and community whose mission is to connect non-drinkers with like-minded individuals to help them make the most of sobriety and to empower people to ‘drink differently.’

Charlie is as a community champion for the charity Alcohol Change UK, who aim to bring awareness to the often-ignored dangers of alcohol, advising on how their policies can be brought to students and younger people at university.

She plans to continue her sober activism after graduation.

She says: “Alcohol was seriously affecting my life and I think it does for a lot of people, but we can have this black and white view of alcoholism - you’re drinking is either fine or you’re an alcoholic drinking whiskey at breakfast.

“There’s a whole grey area between those two stages.”

You can find Charlie Martina on Instagram at @_drymartina_.