Skip to main content

Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

The Influence of Culture on Campus Substance Use

Exploring what could be

Catriona Remocker, MPH

Reprinted from the "Culture" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 9 (4), p. 25

Today’s universities and colleges have a reputation as settings where substance use is sometimes problematic. Post-secondary campuses struggle with students using alcohol and other substances in risky ways and causing harm to both themselves and others. Changing the Culture of Substance Use (CCSU),* a two-year project that started in September 2012, takes a new approach to addressing these issues. Rather than focusing on how individual students use substances, our project asks the question, “How is the culture on our campuses affecting the way young people use substances?” and “What can institutions do to promote a culture that supports the development of healthier relationships with substances?”

Often, culture is used to refer to the rituals, beliefs or customs of particular groups of people. But culture can be thought of more broadly than this. According to Australian biologist Richard Eckersley, culture can simply be thought of as this “fuzzy, complex, dynamic and multi-faceted thing” that is “variably distributed, locally influenced and intimately connected to history, politics, economics and other social factors.”1

Why is this view of culture significant and how does it influence our behaviour? The Centre for Intercultural Learning offers, “Culture rules virtually every aspect of our life… [it] is vital because it enables its members to function with one another without the need to negotiate meaning at every moment.”2 And cross-cultural psychologist Gert Hofstede says that “culture is the software of the mind.”3

Essentially, this means that culture influences our behaviour without us generally being aware of it. While targeting cultural change may not be the only way we can influence human behaviour, it’s one potential way to have a broad impact on a lot of people.

So what does this mean for our post-secondary campuses? Well, imagine that you’re starting your first year at university. You’ll have expectations about university life—about frosh week (first-year orientation week), study habits, residence life—along with ideas about the ways you should act if you want to make friends.

These expectations will have developed over time and will be rooted in history, both recent and ancient. And they may be impacted by the current social, economic and political environment, and the media. As an example, research actually showed that the debut of the film Animal House in 1978 directly corresponded with increases in risky drinking behaviours among college students. Even though the film is now over 30 years old, its influence on behaviour still persists because it has infiltrated our cultural norms and expectations around post-secondary student drinking behaviours.4

In addition to these societal influences, the culture of the specific university you go to will make a difference to your experience. Health behaviours of students, including alcohol and substance use behaviours, vary dramatically from institution to institution.5 For instance, some campuses have a ‘party reputation’ that is well-known to incoming students, whereas others may have less of a ‘known’ social scene. Students may simply know these other institutions to have high academic standards or excellent athletics programs.

Campus reputations can impact which students choose to attend a particular institution (self-selection effects). And, once students are on campus, it may affect their choices about when and how much to party (peer pressure effects). An additional complication is that sometimes, student beliefs about how much other students are using substances is actually an overestimation of the reality (social norms effects), yet can encourage students to use more than they are comfortable with.

Once on campus, students may find themselves attracted to particular groups (e.g., Greek life [sororities and fraternities] or student athletics) that will offer subcultures they believe will help meet their social needs and goals. The impact of these subcultures can be mixed. Students involved in athletics, for instance, will gain social and health benefits from involvement. However, they also can be at increased risk for excessive alcohol consumption and its associated negative consequences.6

Invariably, the culture and subcultures of the institution will influence your first-year experience, the behavioural patterns and practices you adopt (both related and unrelated to substance use), and the choices you make in the future.

Becoming conscious consumers of culture

Addressing the influence of culture on substance use is no small undertaking and involves many significant challenges. Culture is abstract, multi-faceted, complex, dynamic and yet resistant to change. Things get even more complex when we ask, “If not this culture, then which culture?”

We don’t consider ourselves experts in answering these questions or prescribing any specific course of action for campuses. The goal of our project is not to find or assign the ‘right’ culture. Instead, we aim to help campuses increase their understanding of culture as a key influence on behaviour and to encourage members of the campus to become educated critics of culture.

With increased awareness of the influence of culture, we can begin to reprogram some of the “software of the mind.” As educated critics of culture, campus members can reflect on the positive and negative potential influences of culture on themselves and others. So, instead of being unconsciously driven by culture, they can actually make choices based on personal values and ideals and as informed consumers of culture.

Working toward healthier campus cultures

To bring our project to life, we are creating a community of practice. This is a sustainable, committed community of interested individuals (students, faculty, staff, etc.) from across BC who are willing to learn and work on these issues.

As we work with our community members, we ask difficult questions, provide support and consultation, and assist in the process of developing action plans for individual campuses. For instance, we would ask institutions with a ‘party reputation’ to examine how they could mitigate this influence, and an action plan might be to offer alcohol-free residence accommodations to students who don’t want their studies disrupted by on-campus parties.

Involved campuses have moved forward in this project in a variety of ways. For instance, Selkirk College has made great strides in generating community dialogue and engagement, focusing heavily on including students in their process. One of these efforts has been the development of the Dinner Party program, which gives students the opportunity to prepare a meal together, while examining their relationships with substances through focused discussion.

Another example comes from the University of Victoria, which has developed a comprehensive strategy that integrates health, residence and counselling services, to create a culture of moderation on campus. UVic has used data gathered from the National College Health Assessment ( survey to create ‘Data Dialogues.’ These have been used to approach interested groups to discuss the culture of substance use on campus and how they might address change.

Many campuses initially struggled in this project to make visible changes, and some came up against political and organizational barriers in their institution. However, these campuses have persevered and many are now making exciting progress toward attaining their culture-change goals.

Additionally, through the project’s collaborative learning process, campuses have been helping each other to take strides toward breaking down divisions between various campus members and groups and encouraging dialogue and co-operation among campus members.

Whatever the level of progress on each campus, we focus on what can be accomplished in the short term, as well as how to prepare for sustainable changes in the future. The project is scheduled to complete in August 2014; however, we plan to integrate the community we’ve built into a larger community of practice in the province—the Healthy Minds/Healthy Campuses initiative ( We hope our campuses, supported by this community, will continue making strides toward their goals.

We also ensure that processes and sub-projects in our community are documented and become resources that benefit and inform other campuses. As such, we are building a website for the public, where finished resources will be housed. There will also be a communication platform where member campuses can continue learning, working and creating further resources together.

Moving toward a cultural legacy

We believe that raising consciousness about the influence of culture on substance use, shifting the language around substance use, and encouraging open dialogue about our relationships with substances will be valuable legacies of this project. Shifting a culture is not easy, but it might be the most important thing we can do toward creating positive change for today’s young people and the coming generations.

* The Changing the Culture of Substance Use project is part of the BC Healthy Minds/Healthy Campuses initiative. Funding is provided by the BC Ministry of Health and from BC Mental Health and Addiction Services as part of their support for BC Partners for Mental Health and Substance Use Information. It’s a partnership project between the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division and the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.

About the author

Catriona is Project Coordinator of the Changing the Culture of Substance Use project. She is a Research Associate with the Centre for Addictions Research of BC, in the Knowledge Exchange division

  1. Eckersley, R. (2005). Author’s response: Culture can be studied at both large and small scales. International Journal of Epidemiology, 35(2), 263-265.
  2. Centre for Intercultural Learning, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. (2011). What is culture?
  3. Lonner, W.J. & Hayes, S.A (Eds.). (2007). Discovering cultural psychology: A profile of selected readings of Ernest E. Boesch. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc. 
  4. Dowdall, G.W. (2009). College drinking: Reframing a social problem. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
  5. Wechsler, H., Davenport, A., Dowdall, G. et al. (1994). Health and behavioral consequences of binge drinking in college. A national survey of students at 140 campuses. Journal of the American Medical Association, 272(21), 1672-1677.
  6. Martens, M.P., Dams-O’Connor, K. & Niels, C.B. (2006). A systematic review of college student-athlete drinking: Prevalence rates, sport-related factors, and interventions. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 31(3), 305-316.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.