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We all know this scenario: You’re out with your friends and everyone is enjoying themselves—swaying to the music, unwinding, and perhaps throwing back a few drinks. But you notice one of them has had a little too much (e.g., stumbling, slurring, talking loudly), and something tells you to pay attention to it. You know them like the back of your hand; after all, these are your people, and you watch out for each other. So when your feelers go up to tell you that your friend’s capabilities are down, what do you do? And what can you do to help everyone end up OK at the end of the night?
Before we go any further, let’s pause for a moment—you might assume that most students find themselves (and their friends) drinking a little too much a little too often. But you’d be wrong; it’s not happening as often as you’d think. Here’s how much other students are actually drinking—compared to how much you think they’re drinking.
Students think 94 percent of their peers drank alcohol in the last 30 days. In reality, only 64 percent say they drank at some point during that time, according to a survey of 33,512 students by the American College Health Association.
Curious to know how often SH101 readers are drinking? Here’s what 408 students told us in a recent survey.
How often, on average, do students drink alcohol?
How often do students think their peers are drinking? (Hint: You’re way off)
“Most people drink responsibly, or not at all, but don’t boast about that, so they may think they’re the only ones,” says Dr. Ann Quinn-Zobeck, former senior director of BACCHUS initiatives and training, a national association of peer education initiatives to address alcohol use at US colleges.
Even though drinking isn’t as common as you might think, you may someday find yourself with a drunk person who needs help. Most of the best ways to help are pretty straightforward—you’re probably doing them already. Still, it’s always good to have a plan. Things can get a little unclear when it comes to determining how much help a person needs, especially if you’ve been drinking too. Use this guide to figure out how best to help.
Step 1: Stay by their side
When people aren’t paying attention to their pacing, drinks can sneak up on them, especially in a party environment. You’re probably already checking in with your friends throughout the night; it’s what you do when you want to have a good time without anything negative going down. As soon as you notice that your friend is closing in on “a little too much” territory, it’s time to step up your check-ins. Keep an eye on them and stay close. This is important—even once they stop drinking, their blood alcohol content (BAC) is still going up for an hour or so. And that could mean trouble for your friend.
“Staying with, or at least keeping an eye on, a friend who has been drinking, especially if they are having trouble walking and talking, or if they think they might be sick, is an important act of kindness. They’re not at their best, but with you by their side to help, there is a better chance that they’ll be OK. By staying with them, you can help get them safely to their own bed or to a bathroom if they’re going to be sick, then you or someone who’s sober can keep an eye on them in case their situation worsens.”
—Dr. Davis Smith, staff physician, University of Connecticut
96 percent of students say they’d stay with an intoxicated person to make sure they were OK*
Step 2: Steer your friend away from the alcohol
If they’ve already overindulged, drinking more is only going to make things worse (and the alcohol will keep hitting them later on, even after they’ve stopped). The best thing to do here is to keep them from the beverages and the “Can I get you another drink?” encouragers. You might have to get a little creative in the process.
“Intoxicated people are focused on in-the-moment stimuli, which makes them prone to distraction,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, who oversees the Alcohol and Other Drugs Harm Reduction Initiative at Yale University in Connecticut. “So redirecting a drunk friend is often astonishingly easy, especially if you know what they like.”
Try some of these strategies:
- What’s that you hear? It’s Beyoncé, and it must be responded to with aggressive and intentional dance moves. You need both arms for this. Leave the drinks behind. “I know students who will ask the DJ to play their friend’s favorite song. After some time on the dance floor, water and a snack can seem really appealing!” says Dr. Boyd.
- Tell them there’s an issue happening with that person you’re seeing and you need some advice about how to deal. Head to another room or outside to talk more. “Asking the drunk person to help you can work really well—it’s a nice way to call their more mindful qualities to the forefront,” says Dr. Boyd.
- You know what sounds amazing? Pizza. Or cheese fries. Go and get it now.
- Is your friend still clutching a drink? “Accidentally” spill it—on yourself, on the floor, on another gracious friend who’s part of the plan, anything to keep them from sipping more.
- Tell them you’ve had too much and suggest you both get some water. Follow through.
- If they’re not having any of it and insisting on another overflowing cocktail, say you’ll make it—just forget to put in the alcohol.*
*But be careful with this because it can be tricky. After all, you don’t want your friend to think they drank more than they did. Confess to your friend in the morning that the drinks were alcohol-free and use that as a starting point for a check-in.
Hold off on the lectures or serious convos: If you’re not loving how this situation is playing out or how your friend is behaving, and you want to talk to them about it, wait until they’re sober.
Here’s something that most of us know: It’s hard to reason with a drunk person since they are so caught up in the moment. They may get upset or misunderstand you, and then might lash out, overreact, or do something risky such as walk off alone. Your main goal here is to make sure they’re OK, not analyze what they’re doing or how they got there—at least, not right now. Save it until they’re sober and then approach it with kindness. “A couple of days after the event, I would talk to them about it, why it happened, and how they can avoid it in the future,” says Donna Cornett, alcohol abuse counselor and author of Beat Binge Drinking. If their drinking feels like a recurring issue, suggest they reach out to a counselor, professional, or a support group for some extra help.
“When my friend consumes too much alcohol, she likes to run away from our friends. I just follow her wherever she goes to ensure her safety and later bring up my issues when she’s sober.”
—Vivian H., fourth-year student, University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Step 3: Head out for a safer spot—together
Even if you’re not sure your friend is in trouble, it’s probably best to help them get somewhere safe. That way, they’re less likely to keep drinking and less likely to feel bad in the morning.
First and foremost, always make sure someone who’s been drinking doesn’t drive. Take away their keys if you need to, or conveniently “lose” them. If driving isn’t an option, walk with them back to their place or join them in the taxi, ride share, bus, train, flying unicorn, whatever. Their place is probably preferable, but if it’s too far or there’s drinking going down there too, consider taking them to your space or somewhere else safe and drink-free. Do what you can to bring other helpful friends along too—ideally, this is less of a “rescue” and more of a way to reset the night while still having fun.
“I asked for someone to accompany me when taking them home. I also made sure that they would be in the company of someone and not be alone throughout the night.”
—Maria L., fourth-year student, San Bernardino Valley College, California
“It is always good to have a plan prior to a party or drinking event, such as an established designated driver or safe way to get home, and a ‘buddy system.’”
—Sonya M., fourth-year student, Northern Illinois University
90 percent of students say they’d make sure the person got home safely (e.g., a sober driver, ride share, someone to walk with them)*
Step 4: Keep them awake, if you can, and stick around
Try to keep them awake for a while, since it’s easier to gauge how well they’re doing when they’re awake instead of asleep. Get some water and encourage them to sip on it, not chug it. Throw on their (or your) favorite movie and ask them questions to keep them engaged. Stomach feeling just fine? Have a little snack. Stomach not really playing along? Don’t force them to throw up. Let them do so naturally, according to Stanford’s Office of Alcohol Policy and Education.
If they do throw up:
- Try to keep them sitting up.
- If they can’t sit up, it’s probably time to call for help. In the meantime, lay them on their side to prevent choking.
- If your friend can’t stop vomiting, call 911.
And make sure you stick around, especially if they’re vomiting. “Stay with them to make sure they don’t pass out. If they are vomiting, make sure they stay awake and do not choke. If they are in a really bad condition,  may be called and they may be transported to the ER.”
—Sara G., former resident assistant, Saint Louis University, Missouri
Sometimes, your best efforts at keeping someone awake will fail, even if they involve your favorite Judd Apatow movie. If they do fall asleep:
- Lay them on their side to prevent choking on vomit.
- Check that they are breathing normally. What’s normally? They should be breathing more than 8 times per minute and the gaps between their breaths should be shorter than 10 seconds. If you’re not sure, call 911.
- Stay and keep an eye on them through the night. If you can’t swing it, call their other friends, partner, parents, or another reliable person who can, and wait with them until the person arrives.
“I stopped them from drinking more and got them water. I sat with them for a long time to wait for a ride and we went home together. I slept on their couch after tucking them into bed.”
—Michael N., first-year online graduate student, Collin College, Texas
Use this step at any point
You might get into a situation where things are escalating or you’re not sure if someone needs more help than you can provide. That’s OK—call someone for help. Reach out to a sober friend or relative or someone close by that you trust. If you are ever in doubt, call 911 right away.
“It’s always a good rule of thumb to have three [people] you trust and can rely upon in hard times at your fingertips,” says Lohmann. “Have their numbers saved in your phone in case you need them.” And remember, this is what your emergency resources are for. They’d much rather you call them, even late at night, than have a student at risk.
64 percent of students say they’d call a trusted sober person to ask for help and determine whether the friend needs medical attention*
When to call 911
If the person has one or more of the signs below, or if you’re unsure, seek medical attention right away. Even if you’re worried that your friend might be angry with you in the morning, it’s better to reach out for help than wait. “In any situation in which you are very concerned about another person’s well-being, it is worth considering getting help. Remember, too, that embarrassment and frustration with themselves may manifest as anger at others. A friendship can be healed; not getting help in time can be catastrophic,” says Dr. Davis Smith, staff physician at the University of Connecticut.
If you notice any signs of alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately. Here’s what that could look like, according to the Mayo Clinic and Drinkaware, an alcohol education program in the UK:
- Unconscious (passed out) and unable to wake
- Pale, ashen, or blue-tinted skin (if it’s hard to tell, look for a blue tint under the fingernails and on the inside of the bottom lip)
- Irregular breathing or very slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute or gaps of 10 seconds or longer between breaths)
- Having a seizure
- Being extremely confused or in a stupor (e.g., the person is conscious but unresponsive)
“If your friend is losing consciousness, breathing irregularly, or experiencing seizures, call 911 immediately,” says Lohmann.
81 percent of students say they’d call 911 or emergency services if they encountered someone who drank too much and needed help*
The legal drinking age in the US is 21. However, if you or your friend is underage, don’t let that stop you from helping.
“Many states have Good Samaritan policies in place,” says Dr. Aaron White, senior scientific advisor to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Washington, DC. “These allow friends to call for help without risk of getting in trouble.” Of course, if someone is exhibiting the symptoms [of alcohol poisoning above], you absolutely need to make the call either way.
And while we’re at it—consider making a plan the next time you and your friends go out. Talk through how much, or if you’re planning on drinking, come up with a quick protocol if things go awry, and make a pact to leave the anger out of it if someone needs serious help. “Many people have developed the habit of planning with their friends before partying. They discuss how much they plan to drink and what they hope to get out of the night. This puts them in a better position to be helpful to one another,” says Dr. Smith.
You’ve been there, and you’ve stepped up. Here’s what you told us:
“The person was completely unresponsive, so I called 911.”
—Lilo B., fourth-year graduate student, school withheld
“I made sure she wasn’t in the wrong hands and was by her side until we made it home safely.”
—Toral M., fourth-year graduate student, University of Oklahoma
*Source: Student Health 101 survey, June 2017, 1,460 respondents
Strategies in this article are based on content by the UK’s Drinkaware education program and “Looking Out for Your Friends” by Stanford University’s Office of Alcohol Policy and Education.
Get help or find out more
Aaron White, PhD, senior scientific advisor to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Washington, DC.
Ann Quinn-Zobeck, PhD, former senior director of BACCHUS initiatives and training, NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education).
Davis Smith, MD, staff physician, University of Connecticut.
Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, MS, LPC, professional counselor and author of numerous psychological wellness books for teens, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.
Pierre Paul-Tellier, MD, director of student health services, McGill University, Quebec.
American College Health Association. (2016). National College Health Assessment—Fall 2016 reference group executive summary. Retrieved from http://www.acha-ncha.org/docs/NCHA-II_FALL_2016_REFERENCE_GROUP_EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY.pdf
Berrington, L. (2016, November 1). Drinking? 7 ways to get what you want from it. Student Health 101. Retrieved from http://default.readsh101.com/drinking-7-ways-get-want/
Drinkaware. (2016, March 21). Alcohol poisoning—symptoms, causes, and effects. Retrieved from https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/effects-on-the-body/alcohol-poisoning/
Mayo Clinic. (2016, July 21). Alcohol poisoning. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/dxc-20211603
Stanford University Office of Alcohol Policy and Education (n.d.). Looking out for your friends. Retrieved from https://alcohol.stanford.edu/alcohol-drug-info/staying-safe/looking-out-your-friends