Eat, drink and be merry? Consumption and connectedness on campus

Post-secondary institutions face a variety of challenges in regard to food and mind-altering substances. These can run a gamut from “orthorexia” (an obsession with eating only foods deemed very healthy) to what has been dubbed “drunkorexia” (extreme weight control practices to compensate for calories added in episodes of heavy drinking).

At least some of the factors that contribute to unhealthy eating on campus are the same as those which influence unhealthy alcohol or other drug use. That was a common theme in the discussion during a webinar we participated in some weeks ago. The conversation focused on how post-secondary institutions might address these factors so as to create conditions more conducive to wellbeing.

One thread of the conversation had to do with how eating and substance use are both linked to socializing and building relationships. Solitary consumption, whether it’s food, alcohol or illicit drugs, is more likely to be harmful for people. So why not encourage individuals to eat and drink mostly in the company of others rather than in isolation? Our institutions also need to consider how they might foster an environment that naturally brings people together and promotes sensible, enjoyable eating, as well as substance use that is both moderate and gratifying. This will not only help avoid problems but will encourage participation in the community and help create a positive sense of identity and belonging.

It has long been recognized that campuses can influence their alcohol culture. Ideally, drinking should be situated as an optional (rather than essential) and peripheral (rather than central) component of forging and strengthening bonds of friendship and having fun together. Messaging such as “not too much, not too often, only when safe” can promote more reflection and intentional choices around the use of alcohol (and other drugs). Policy can attempt to thoughtfully regulate use in ways attentive to the health interests and rights of users and non-users alike. But this will not be enough.

Sustained efforts to cultivate a culture of connectedness and caring will need to engage community members in dialogue around the issues. Students, administrators, faculty, counsellors, residence staff, coaches and others would be among the partners in such conversation on campus. Nurturing respectful dialogue is challenging in our fractured society but is essential to building mutual understanding that will allow us to function together. Engaging conversation on “big” questions related to pleasure, social responsibility and moderation while preparing a meal and eating together together may not be a bad place to start.  Selkirk College’s Dinner Basket Conversations provide a great example.

Of course, we will not all agree. Those who are persuaded that nothing short of drunkenness delivers confidence, liberation, opportunity, adventure, or hilarity can still be encouraged to practice protective strategies for themselves and their comrades. They can also be presented with alternative ways of meaningful engagement that will broaden their horizon of what can build confidence and provide friends and memorable experiences.

Campuses can best address these challenges by being strategically proactive. Being reactive in employing countermeasures and penalties to reduce exposure to damage will not do it. Campuses must actively and continuously seek to foster, through many different initiatives, a community of collective caring that produces mutually enhancing relationships among all its members.

Hopefully the conversations will continue. The Centre for Addictions Research of BC, Canadian Mental Health Association-BC Division, and Jessie’s Legacy Eating Disorders Prevention Program are interested in helping post-secondary institutions implement effective approaches to support healthy relationships with food and substances on campuses. Please send your ideas and experiences to

Tim Dyck  #4 Dan Reist Preferred

Authors: Tim Dyck, Dan Reist, Centre for Addictions Research of BC.

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.

Plant the Seeds and See What Grows: Education and Culture Change

When I try to explain the kind of work that I do for CARBC, I often use the analogy of being a farmer. I am the Coordinator of the Changing the Culture of Substance Use Project, a multi-year project to build a vibrant community of practice on BC’s post-secondary campuses. But my work is similar to the farmer; I research, prepare and plan what we should grow, examine the growing conditions, help plant the seeds, and then I, along with my team, continuously encourage their growth so that we will have a fruitful harvest. Of course, our seeds are very different from the farmer’s. Ours are the seeds of thought as to how we might change a culture of substance use in a growing campus community of practice. And what we hope to eventually see is the changing norms, attitudes, programs, policies, and practices that reflect this kind of thinking on campus.

Education with respect to culture change is a unique challenge. When the goal is culture change, education becomes about engagement. We need to think about whom we engage in this learning, how we engage them and what we engage them about. We are not necessarily concerned with equipping these folks with the tools to manage their own patterns of use (although that may be a by-product of the process). Rather, we hope that they will become part of a larger concerted effort to co-develop efforts on campus that have the power to significantly impact generations of students.

  • So who should we engage in this kind of learning? We engage those who are intrinsically interested and motivated to be part of a culture change effort on campus. These could include counselling staff, health practitioners, faculty members, students, access and support services, deans, as well as many others.  Our basic premise is that all members of a campus community can potentially be or become leaders in culture change.
  • And how do we engage them? Our engagement is constructivist and collaborative. We harness the expertise in the room and in this field around what might change a culture on a particular campus. Campuses will learn from each other and pick up tools and techniques that have been successful for others for adaptation. For instance, Selkirk College recently developed an innovative Dinner Basket program that encourages students to share a meal and discuss substance use in a nonjudgmental manner. Several other campuses are now adapting this approach for their own contexts.
  • And what do we engage about? Often it is a combination of a wide variety of topics. These topics generally focus on how we go about shifting a culture. For instance, we might begin with some discussions on the role of culture in influencing behavior around substance use. As we become more familiar with the topic, we look at mechanisms for changing a culture, such as community of practice building, motivational approaches or situational assessment. The goal is to build the toolbox campuses have at their disposal with the best in current thinking and see what takes hold. This may sound haphazard, but it allows us to avoid being prescriptive in what we endorse and encourages campuses to identify their own goals, resources, areas of strength and required efforts in this process.

This type of work is not easy or simple. Much like the farmer’s work, it requires patience, flexibility, responsiveness and the ability to see the forest for the trees. It also requires the ability to release control and allow the community to grow and develop, guided by a caring hand. With dedicated, strategic and consistent efforts, we are hopeful for a plentiful harvest.

To learn more about the Changing the Culture of Substance Use Project and/or how to join our community of practice, please check out this article in CMHA-BC’s Visions Journal or visit our website at

Catriona Remocker

Author: Catriona Remocker, Research Associate, Centre for Addictions Research of BC; Coordinator of the Changing the Culture of Substance Use Project

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.