SHU Kicks Off Social Norming Program with DOT Grant

News Story:

FAIRFIELD, Conn.—Students returned to Sacred Heart University last week to find their hallways and classrooms filled with posters conveying non-traditional messages designed to reduce high risk drinking behavior. The effort is part of a newly implemented “social norming” program at SHU that dismisses the idea that binge drinking and drug use are common behaviors at many college campuses.

SHU is the first in the Northeast to receive a grant from its state Department of Transportation to start a social norm strategy on a college campus. The University received the grant last January, but officially launched the campaign last week by installing hundreds of posters on campus. One poster states that “85% of SHU students support designating a sober driver.” Another reads “Most SHU students have 0-4 drinks when they go out partying.” Posters containing four other messages will be installed in five-week intervals throughout the year.

According to Program Coordinator Janice Kessler, an alcohol and drug counselor at SHU, the positive, fact-based messages are designed to challenge students’ perceptions regarding what “normal” college behavior actually is. The campaign will hopefully educate and raise awareness of the traditional misperceptions among college students regarding their own use of controlled substances.

“There’s been a lot buzz around campus,” Kessler said. “The posters have been stirring up a lot of conversation as the students are surprised with the statistics.”

For more than 30 years, marketing campaigns for alcohol and drug abuse prevention have mainly relied on strategies that accentuate the negative. Those strategies include guest speakers, anti-drinking and anti-drug presentations, drunk driving crash simulators or the popular scare tactic, “This is your brain; this is your brain on drugs” campaign.

The social norming approach takes the typical anti-drug campaign and completely turns it around, added Richard Madwid, an alcohol and drug counselor at SHU also working on the project.

“Until now, we’ve seen really negative campaigns,” Madwid said. “We’ve been trying to teach people in the negative for years. Social norming uses the concepts of advertising and marketing in the area of substance abuse but in reverse--in a positive way.”

“Social Norming: An Evidence-Based Approach” was developed by Jeff Linkenbach, Ed.D., from Montana State University, who has been enlisted to help SHU implement this innovative campaign on its Connecticut campus. More than 30 colleges nationwide have adopted the social norming approach to prevent drug and alcohol abuse.

Changing perceptions of college students’ substance use have been proven to cause less at-risk behaviors and lowered incidents of related issues, including drinking and driving, and alcohol/drug dependency.

The campaign at SHU began with a random sample survey of nearly 500 SHU students regarding their own drug and alcohol history and their perception of their peer groups on campus. The goal of the survey was to assess student behaviors and perceptions regarding campus use of alcohol and other drugs.

The DOT grant will also support Sacred Heart University’s sponsorship of a statewide summit for Connecticut colleges and universities to join the social norming approach and learn how to implement prevention strategies on their own campuses. Although the summit is still in the planning phases, Kessler said that SHU hopes to explain the benefits and positive results the University has received. It will take place at the Fairfield campus and will feature Linkenbach as a speaker. SHU will be the first university to hold a statewide summit of this kind.