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We all know this scenario: You’re out with your friends and everyone is enjoying themselves—swaying to the music, unwinding, and perhaps throwing back a few drinks. But you notice one of them has had a little too much (e.g., stumbling, slurring, talking loudly), and something tells you to pay attention to it. You know them like the back of your hand; after all, these are your people, and you watch out for each other. So when your feelers go up to tell you that your friend’s capabilities are down, what do you do? And what can you do to help everyone end up OK at the end of the night?
Before we go any further, let’s pause for a moment—you might assume that most college and university students find themselves (and their friends) drinking a little too much a little too often. But you’d be wrong; it’s not happening as often as you’d think. Here’s how much other students are actually drinking—compared to how much you think they’re drinking.
Students think 95 percent of their peers drank alcohol in the last 30 days. In reality, only 69 percent say they drank at some point during that time, according to a survey of 43,780 Canadian students by the American College Health Association.
Curious to know how often SH101 readers are drinking? Here’s what 182 students from across Canada told us in a recent survey.
How often, on average, do students drink alcohol?
How often do students think their peers are drinking?
“Most people drink responsibly, or not at all, but don’t boast about that, so they may think they’re the only ones,” says Dr. Ann Quinn-Zobeck, Former Senior Director of BACCHUS initiatives and training, a national association of peer education initiatives to address alcohol use at US schools.
Even though drinking isn’t as common as you might think, you may someday find yourself with a drunk person who needs help. Most of the best ways to help are pretty straightforward—you’re probably doing them already. Still, it’s always good to have a plan. Things can get a little unclear when it comes to determining how much help a person needs, especially if you’ve been drinking too. Use this guide to figure out how best to help.
Step 1: Stay by their side
When people aren’t paying attention to their pacing, drinks can sneak up on them, especially in a party environment. You’re probably already checking in with your friends throughout the night; it’s what you do when you want to have a good time without anything negative going down. As soon as you notice that your friend is closing in on “a little too much” territory, it’s time to step up your check-ins. Keep an eye on them and stay close. This is important—even once they stop drinking, their blood alcohol content (BAC) is still going up for an hour or so. And that could mean trouble for your friend.
“Alcohol can cause decreased judgment; a friend may plan to leave with someone they don’t know, drive inebriated, or even try to leave without being appropriately dressed. Keeping an eye on a friend who drank too much can help prevent these behaviours that can lead to harmful results.”
—Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, Associate Professor of Family Medicine, McGill University, Quebec
“Staying with a vulnerable friend is key: You want to [try to] make sure they remain safe and get home unharmed. Navigating even the simplest task can be risky when inebriated, and a watchful friend can help avoid accidents.”
—Ann Dowsett Johnston, Toronto-based author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol (HarperCollins Publishers, 2013) and advocate in public policy matters
93 percent of students say they’d stay with an intoxicated person to make sure they were OK*
Step 2: Steer your friend away from the alcohol
If they’ve already overindulged, drinking more is only going to make things worse (and the alcohol will keep hitting them later on, even after they’ve stopped). The best thing to do here is to keep them from the beverages and the “Can I get you another drink?” encouragers. You might have to get a little creative in the process.
“Intoxicated people are focused on in-the-moment stimuli, which makes them prone to distraction,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, who oversees the Alcohol and Other Drugs Harm Reduction Initiative at Yale University in Connecticut. “So redirecting a drunk friend is often astonishingly easy, especially if you know what they like.”
Try some of these strategies:
- What’s that you hear? It’s Beyoncé, and it must be responded to with aggressive and intentional dance moves. You need both arms for this. Leave the drinks behind. “I know students who will ask the DJ to play their friend’s favourite song. After some time on the dance floor, water and a snack can seem really appealing!” says Dr. Boyd.
- Tell them there’s an issue happening with that person you’re seeing and you need some advice about how to deal. Head to another room or outside to talk more. “Asking the drunk person to help you can work really well—it’s a nice way to call their more mindful qualities to the forefront,” says Dr. Boyd.
- You know what sounds amazing? Pizza. Or cheese fries. Go and get it now.
- Is your friend still clutching a drink? “Accidentally” spill it—on yourself, on the floor, on another gracious friend who’s part of the plan, anything to keep them from sipping more.
- Tell them you’ve had too much and suggest you both get some water. Follow through.
- If they’re not having any of it and insisting on another overflowing cocktail, say you’ll make it—just forget to put in the alcohol.*
*But be careful with this because it can be tricky. After all, you don’t want your friend to think they drank more than they did. Confess to your friend in the morning that the drinks were alcohol-free and use that as a starting point for a check-in.
Hold off on the lectures or serious convos: If you’re not loving how this situation is playing out or how your friend is behaving, and you want to talk to them about it, wait until they’re sober.
Here’s something that most of us know: It’s hard to reason with a drunk person since they’re so caught up in the moment. They may get upset or misunderstand you, and then might lash out, overreact, or do something risky such as walk off alone. Your main goal here is to make sure they’re OK, not analyze what they’re doing or how they got there—at least, not right now. Save it until they’re sober and then approach it with kindness. “If you want to intervene, keep it simple in the moment. But save your longer conversation for a time when the friend is sober and can absorb your concerns,” says Johnston. If their drinking feels like a recurring issue, suggest they reach out to a counsellor, professional, or a support group for some extra help.
“When my friend consumes too much alcohol, she likes to run away from our friends. I just follow her wherever she goes to ensure her safety and later bring up my issues when she’s sober.”
—Vivian H., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario
Step 3: Head out for a safer spot—together
Even if you’re not sure your friend is in trouble, it’s probably best to help them get somewhere safe. That way, they’re less likely to keep drinking and less likely to feel bad in the morning.
First and foremost, always make sure someone who’s been drinking doesn’t drive. Take away their keys if you need to, or conveniently “lose” them. If driving isn’t an option, walk with them back to their place or join them in the taxi, ride share, bus, train, flying unicorn, whatever. Their place is probably preferable, but if it’s too far or there’s drinking going down there too, consider taking them to your space or somewhere else safe and drink-free. Do what you can to bring other helpful friends along too—ideally, this is less of a “rescue” and more of a way to reset the night while still having fun.
“I called [my friend’s] sister, who’s a nurse, and she took her home. On the same night, my other friend didn’t have anyone in town to help them so I got a taxi to come get us, and I made sure she got home.”
—LeAnne D., second-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick
“I brought them home safe to their house and stayed with them while they slept it off to make sure they didn’t vomit.”
—Lindsay S., third-year graduate student, University of Windsor, Ontario
92 percent of students say they’d make sure the person got home safely (e.g., a sober driver, ride share, someone to walk with them)*
Step 4: Keep them awake, if you can, and stick around
Try to keep them awake for a while, since it’s easier to gauge how well they’re doing when they’re awake instead of asleep. Get some water and encourage them to sip on it, not chug it. Throw on their (or your) favourite movie and ask them questions to keep them engaged. Stomach feeling just fine? Have a little snack. Stomach not really playing along? Don’t force them to throw up. Let them do so naturally, according to Stanford’s Office of Alcohol Policy and Education.
If they do throw up:
- Try to keep them sitting up.
- If they can’t sit up, it’s probably time to call for help. In the meantime, lay them on their side to prevent choking.
- If your friend can’t stop vomiting, call 911.
And make sure you stick around, especially if they’re vomiting. “Stay with them to make sure they don’t pass out. If they’re vomiting, make sure they stay awake and do not choke. If they are in a really bad condition, consider professional help (e.g., a trip to the ER).”
—Sara G., third-year undergraduate and former Resident Assistant, Saint Louis University, Missouri
Sometimes, your best efforts at keeping someone awake will fail, even if they involve your favourite Judd Apatow movie. If they do fall asleep:
- Lay them on their side to prevent choking on vomit.
- Check that they are breathing normally. What’s normally? They should be breathing more than 8 times per minute and the gaps between their breaths should be shorter than 10 seconds. If you’re not sure, call 911.
- Stay and keep an eye on them through the night. If you can’t swing it, call their roommates, other friends, parents, or another reliable person who can, and wait with them until the person arrives.
“She was wasted [and] puking so I sat with her as people left for the bar and once everyone left, walked her back home to her place. We were next-door neighbours so we were close friends. [I] just carried her to the couch and kept an eye on her during the night.”
—Andrew M., fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta
Use this step at any point
You might get into a situation where things are escalating or you’re not sure if someone needs more help than you can provide. That’s OK—call someone for help. Reach out to a sober friend, a Resident Assistant, or someone else you trust. If you are ever in doubt, call 911 right away.
“There’s no time to be wasted: Make the call. It could be a matter of life or death,” says Johnston.
64 percent of students say they’d call a trusted sober person to ask for help and determine whether the friend needs medical attention*
When to call 911
If the person has one or more of the signs below, or if you’re unsure, seek medical attention right away. Even if you’re worried that your friend might be angry with you in the morning, it’s better to reach out for help than wait. “In any situation in which you are very concerned about another person’s well-being, it is worth considering getting help. Remember, too, that embarrassment and frustration with themselves may manifest as anger at others. A friendship can be healed; not getting help in time can be catastrophic,” says Dr. Davis Smith, Staff Physician at the University of Connecticut.
If you notice any signs of alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately. Here’s what that could look like, according to Éduc’alcool, an alcohol education program in Canada:
- Unconscious (passed out) and unable to wake
- Pale, ashen, or blue-tinted skin (if it’s hard to tell, look for a blue tint under the fingernails and on the inside of the bottom lip)
- Irregular breathing or very slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute or gaps of 10 seconds or longer between breaths)
- Having a seizure
- Being extremely confused or in a stupor (e.g., the person is conscious but unresponsive)
87 percent of students say they’d call 911 or emergency services if they encountered someone who drank too much and needed help*
You’ve been there, and you’ve stepped up. Here’s what you told us:
“I made sure they were drinking enough liquids, making sure they weren’t alone. I stayed with them the whole night and went home early with them to make sure they were okay.”
—*Warren P.*, second-year undergraduate, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (*Name changed for privacy)
“We put them to bed with someone to monitor them.”
—Mason S., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario
*Source: Student Health 101 survey, June 2017, 1,460 respondents
Strategies in this article are based on content by the UK’s Drinkaware education program and “Looking Out for Your Friends” by Stanford University’s Office of Alcohol Policy and Education.
Ann Dowsett Johnston, Toronto-based journalist; author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.
Ann Quinn-Zobeck, PhD, Former Senior Director of BACCHUS initiatives and training, NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education).
Davis Smith, MD, Staff Physician, University of Connecticut.
Pierre Paul-Tellier, MD, Associate Professor of Family Medicine at McGill University, Quebec.
American College Health Association. (2016). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Canadian Reference Group Executive Summary. Retrieved from https://www.acha-ncha.org/docs/NCHA-II%20SPRING%202016%20CANADIAN%20REFERENCE%20GROUP%20EXECUTIVE%20SUMMARY.pdf
Berrington, L. (2016, November 1). Drinking? 7 ways to get what you want from it. Student Health 101. Retrieved from https://default.readsh101.com/drinking-7-ways-get-want/
Drinkaware. (2016, March 21). Alcohol poisoning—symptoms, causes, and effects. Retrieved from https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/effects-on-the-body/alcohol-poisoning/
Éduc’alcool. (n.d.). Helping someone who is seriously intoxicated. Retrieved from https://educalcool.qc.ca/en/facts-tips-and-tools/tips/what-to-do-if-someone-becomes-seriously-intoxicated/#.WYzB02SGMzV
Mayo Clinic. (2016, July 21). Alcohol poisoning. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/dxc-20211603
Stanford University Office of Alcohol Policy and Education (n.d.). Looking out for your friends. Retrieved from https://alcohol.stanford.edu/alcohol-drug-info/staying-safe/looking-out-your-friends