Wildcats to the rescue
Chico State’s ROAR trainings teach students to recognize signs of alcohol overdose
On a recent Friday night, Chico State senior McKenna Peterson got a call from a friend who lives in Whitney Hall and figured it was an invitation to go out. She was “being a homebody,” so she didn’t answer.
Then she got a text. Her friend was clearly both drunk and upset. “I called her back and she’s like, ‘My roommate is super-not-OK right now. She can’t walk.’”
Peterson drove to meet her friend and was led to the roommate, an 18-year-old woman. Asking her what and how much she’d had to drink was less than illuminating. “She could barely form words,” Peterson said. The roommate had been known to exaggerate her drunkenness, though, so Peterson devised a test: She asked her to take a few steps unassisted.
“She lifted up one foot and just fell,” Peterson said. “Standing a little wobbly is one thing. But if your friends let go and you full-on, like, timber over, that’s not OK. That’s the point that’s too much.”
Peterson called 911 and the woman was taken by ambulance to Enloe Medical Center, where she was treated overnight. When she was released the next morning, Peterson gave her a ride home and some advice: Take a shower and a nap, then call your parents. They’ll want to know what happened.
She was speaking from personal experience. During her sophomore year, Peterson was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. Now, she’s the senior peer educator for Chico State’s Campus Alcohol & Drug Education Center (CADEC), through which she leads Wildcat ROAR (Reach Out and Respond) trainings—two-hour sessions that teach students to recognize the warning signs of an alcohol overdose and call for help.
Just a few days prior to her roommate’s overdose, Peterson’s friend in Whitney Hall had taken a ROAR training. Without that base of knowledge, she might not have called Peterson, and no one would have called 911. It’s an example of the program working as intended, said Kelsey Harrington, prevention coordinator for CADEC.
“Maybe they don’t remember every single bit of information from the training,” she said, “but they still take a step back and say, ‘This is too much.’”
The sorts of situations that students often find themselves in on weekends—caring for extremely drunken friends—can end in real tragedy. In November 2012, during Trisha Seastrom’s first week as program director of CADEC, 21-year-old Sigma Pi pledge Mason Sumnicht died nearly two weeks after being admitted to Enloe Medical Center with a blood alcohol level of 0.468, more than five times the legal limit.
Since then, Seastrom said, about 3,500 Chico State students have taken ROAR training—the Wildcat version of the nationwide Red Watch Band Bystander Intervention training. All of CADEC’s programming reflects the reality that students are going to drink and aims for harm-reduction rather than abstinence. “You just don’t need to take 15 shots,” Seastrom said. Another tenet, and the basis for ROAR, is that students have to look out for one another.
“I’m not invited to the parties,” she said, “so I’m not there to see an emergency taking place.”
Young people also tend not to be overly receptive to authority figures telling them not to drink or do drugs, said Harrington. As a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, she serves as a professional liaison between the student staff, which includes some 20 peer educators, and the university.
“Students relate to students,” she said. “They have conversations with their roommates in a bar or at a party, they’re role-modeling, and that’s more effective than having a professional staff member go to meetings on campus.”
According to a recent CADEC survey of about 300 students involved in Greek life, the No. 1 reason they wouldn’t call an ambulance for their dangerously intoxicated friends is not recognizing the signs of an overdose: mental confusion, loss of consciousness, gasping for air, erratic breathing, vomiting, hypothermia, and paleness or skin turning blue.
Many students are also intimidated by the prospect of making the call. That’s why ROAR trainings cover the basics of calling 911, such as finding a quiet place, staying calm and speaking clearly—never yelling—into the phone.
Peterson has observed that students are usually surprised by the definition of high-risk drinking: more than four drinks for women and five drinks for men in two hours. That level of consumption is so commonplace that the obvious signs of overdoing it may seem normal, Harrington added.
“Students will tell me ‘Oh, I was fine last night. I didn’t throw up or anything.’ I’m like, ‘OK, that’s a really high bar.’ The upper limit of whether you should drink more shouldn’t be blacking out or throwing up.”
Alcoholism runs in Peterson’s family, she said, so she’s witnessed the overwhelmingly negative aspects of heavy drinking. Many of her peers might not have that perspective.
“I think a lot of students only see the fun, gets-you-feeling-good side of it,” she said. “People need to know that drinking can be fun, but these really negative things can come of it.”
That’s what CADEC’s message boils down to, Seastrom said.
“We want them to have fun in college, but we want them to live through it and be successful, too.”