UIC study: Bullying and harassment of college students fuels alcohol consumption

College students face bullying and sexual harassment both at school and at their jobs, and these forms of mistreatment are associated with excessive alcohol consumption, according to findings presented by Dr. Kathleen Rospenda (U. of Illinois at Chicago) at the recent “Work, Stress and Health” conference in Los Angeles.

Rospenda, an organizational psychologist, and colleagues Jennifer Wolff and Judith Richman conducted a study involving over 2,100 college students at eight Illinois schools:

  • At school, 43 percent experienced bullying and 14 percent experienced sexual harassment;
  • At work, 33 percent experienced bullying and 4 percent experienced sexual harassment.

The survey covered a four month period — essentially, the first semester of the students’ freshman year — which makes these prevalence stats pretty high.

Mistreatment and alcohol abuse

The students’ experiences with bullying and harassment were strongly associated with greater alcohol consumption.  Here are several major points drawn from Rospenda’s presentation and a followup e-mails exchange:

  • “Bullying at work and at school were more strongly and consistently associated with frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption than sexual harassment at work or school”
  • “Compared to bullying and sexual harassment at work, bullying and sexual harassment at school were more strongly and consistently associated with abusive and problematic drinking”
  • Stronger prevention and intervention programs for bullying and sexual harassment at schools will help to “remove some of the triggers for problematic drinking among college students.”


It may be tempting to breezily write off such studies on grounds that connections between going to college and heavy drinking are hardly novel. After all, pushing boundaries of personal behavior is a rite of passage for many during their college years, and most manage to “settle down” as they mature. Those of us who grew up during the “Animal House” era of college life may be especially prone to thinking this way.

But taking this attitude ignores a serious problem with genuine ripple effects. The study shows that bullying, sexual harassment, and alcohol use are a potent mix. Rospenda observed that college is a period of “emerging adulthood.” She also cited research indicating that over 40 percent of 18-25 year olds self-reported engaging in binge drinking during the past month.

Pulling all this together, we see how increased alcohol consumption can become an easy if self-destructive coping response to interpersonal mistreatment early in someone’s life. And when later inevitable challenges and setbacks occur, coping methods learned in college may revive themselves. This can contribute to serious personal and public health concerns covering life spans.


The biennial “Work, Stress and Health” conference is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.


3 responses

  1. This is an important issue, but one which is all too often ignored or glossed over. International students have a particularly difficult time negotiating the complexities of a new culture when they aren’t familiar with the host country expectations, and are vulnerable to bullying and abuse from unscrupulous college staff and employers.

    I’ve just blogged about the issue from an Australian perspective. I hope it’s ok to include the link:


  2. Pingback: Conferences as community builders « Minding the Workplace

  3. Pingback: Conferences as Community Builders | Psychology Benefits Society

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