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Speaking Out on Drug and Alcohol Abuse in Oxford and Ole Miss

Photo By: Christine Cabalo

More marijuana, more LSD, more Ecstasy and more cocaine. Last year, around the country, college students used those drugs at higher rates than they did the year before. Unfortunately, those statistics come as no surprise to substance abuse experts at Ole Miss and in Oxford.

With Friday’s opening of the new Magee Center for Wellness Education at the university, prevention specialists now have more resources to combat the problem on campus and beyond. For these stakeholders, it’s literally a matter of life and death.

On The Front Lines

Cheyenne Bryant is a dispatcher for the Oxford Police Department (OPD). In less than two years on the job, she said she’s personally handled between 50-75 calls for help with drugs and alcohol emergencies.

A majority of the calls are from college students. “We go out and make sure they are okay. If they need medical attention, we call EMS for an evaluation. Once EMS arrives, they do the evaluation and if they believe the patient needs further assistance, they transfer them to a local hospital,” Bryant said.

She said OPD is focused first on providing help.

“We hold no judgment,” Bryant said. “As a police officer, you wear many hats than just ‘cop’. You’re a therapist, a friend, a dad, a sister, a helping hand. Many times my guys have spent hours sitting and talking someone out of drug addiction, alcohol abuse, or suicide. They have held their hands, prayed with them, and followed up with them later to make sure they are still doing okay. It’s not just another call.”

The University Police Department (UPD) is right in the thick of this challenge. The department devotes significant time inside and outside of the classroom educating students about the risks of substance abuse.

“We are trying to really approach it from a ‘make good choices on the front end’ instead of just hammering on enforcement,” Officer Bishop Lewis said.

During student orientation, Lewis said officers talk about substance abuse to the students and the parents.

“But the college environment does put people more at risk for drug and alcohol abuse. Mainly because people are coming to college, away from their parents, they are going to make decisions on their own and we want them to make better decisions.”

A Family’s Pain Prompts Change

William Magee was one of those students who fell into a trap at the University of Mississippi.

According to an article written by his father, Magee was a Sigma Nu fraternity brother, an A student in the Honors College and Croft Institute and a 2010 Champion SEC Outdoor Track and Field who ran in the 400 hurdles. He loved music, traveling and hanging out with friends. Magee also loved going to parties and that is where he started mixing alcohol and drugs.

Magee’s father wrote that they did not know their son had a problem until he was a senior at Ole Miss. After graduation, he was checked into a series of rehabilitation facilities, but he died of an overdose at 23.

Three years after losing his son, David Magee wrote his story for the Oxford Eagle. The column received an overwhelming response from members of the Ole Miss community including faculty and students.

“We wanted to make a difference, but we don’t know what,” Magee said.

The desire to help Ole Miss students with substance abuse problems became Magee’s mission. With the help of the university, David and his wife were able to create an endowment to raise money for the William Magee Center for Wellness Education.

“I believe that it will impact university and students positively,” Magee said. “It goes beyond teaching with books. It will make what makes a great and caring university that much stronger.”

A Drinking Culture

Alcohol use among college students has actually declined nationally in recent years, but it’s still a popular drug with 74.6% of college students reporting alcohol use in 2018.

Oxford native and Ole Miss alumna Eloise Tyner was a public policy major who graduated in 2017. She’s now living and working in Nashville and said it wasn’t until she left campus that she realized how pervasive drinking is at the university.

“The phrase ‘…and drink a beer’ made its way onto the end of every description back home,” Tyner said. “It just struck me that whenever there was downtime, it wasn’t that we as students or recent grads would simply hang out. We would hang out and drink. I love hanging out and drinking, but culturally it became the standard, and there was less of a thoughtful choice every time I drank there.”

Tyner said that drinking culture now strikes her as odd and she’s thought about why it exists.

“I think alcohol use is so high because it’s often a kid’s first time to be able to fully control the amount they are drinking, and are surrounded by a bunch of other clueless 18-year-olds who are setting the norms for each other.”

The Greek Effect

According to a study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, close to half of the people who have lived in a fraternity house at one time had symptoms of alcohol use disorder (AUD) by age 35. Living in a fraternity or sorority at college is also associated with continued binge drinking and marijuana use through early midlife.

Dr. Arthur Doctor is the director of Fraternal Leadership & Learning at the University of Mississippi. He said that none of the councils that govern Greek life have explicit rules regarding alcohol or drug abuse for their members.

“Individual chapters may have policies that pertain to substance use and abuse by members but the Interfraternity Council, Panhellenic Council and the National Panhellenic Council do not have individual policies governing the individual behaviors of members,” Doctor said.

Instead, Doctor said the councils mandate that chapters provide specific programming for their members, including programs on “risk management, alcohol and other drugs.”

But Doctor says substance abuse is difficult to address.

“People want to try to hide it, so it’s hard to help someone or notify someone when you don’t know the problem exists,” he said. “So, we have to do more, talk more and not be afraid to take a friend, take a colleague to get the resources that they need to be well.”

Center of Change

The university has been focused on helping students confront drugs and alcohol abuse for years and Amy Fisher, an associate professor of social work at Ole Miss, has been a part of that effort.

The former coordinator of the counseling center’s substance abuse services said the Magee Center, which is located at the new South Campus Recreation Center, could be a game-changer, helping to highlight the importance of combatting substance abuse on campus.

“Providing such a wonderful space really legitimizes these services,” Fisher said. “Also, providing a centralized location for students who are seeking services really helps strengthen wellness efforts.”

Story contributed by Allen Brewer, Tucker Robbins, Abby Ray Vance, Meagan Harkins, Halleigh Derrick, Lucy Burnam and Franziska Witte.



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