Poor mental health, peer drinking norms, and alcohol risk in a social network of first-year college students

Addict Behav. 2018 Sep;84:151-159. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2018.04.012. Epub 2018 Apr 16.


Objective: College students with anxiety and depressive symptomatology face escalated risk for alcohol-related negative consequences. While it is well-established that normative perceptions of proximal peers' drinking behaviors influence students' own drinking behaviors, it is not clear how mental health status impacts this association. In the current study, we examined cross-sectional relationships between anxiety and depressed mood, perceived drinking behaviors and attitudes of important peers, and past month alcohol consumption and related problems in a first-semester college student social network.

Method: Participants (N = 1254, 55% female, 47% non-Hispanic White) were first-year students residing on campus at a single university who completed a web-based survey assessing alcohol use, mental health, and social connections among first-year student peers. Network autocorrelation models were used to examine the independent and interactive associations between mental health and perceptions of close peers' drinking on drinking outcomes, controlling for important variables.

Results: Mental health interacted with perceptions to predict past-month drinking outcomes, such that higher anxiety and higher perceptions that peers drink heavily was associated with more drinks consumed and consequences, and higher depression and perceptions was associated with more drinks consumed, heavy drinking frequency, and consequences. Attitudes that peers approve of heavy drinking were associated with more drinks consumed and heavy drinking frequency among students with lower (vs. higher) depressed mood.

Conclusions: This study provides strong evidence that perceiving that close peers drink heavily is particularly risk-enhancing for anxious and depressed college students, and offers implications about alcohol intervention targeted at these subgroups.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT02895984.

Keywords: Alcohol; Anxiety; College peers; Depressed mood; Perceptions; Social network.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Alcohol Drinking in College*
  • Anxiety / epidemiology*
  • Binge Drinking / epidemiology*
  • Depression / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Peer Group
  • Risk
  • Social Networking
  • Social Norms*
  • Young Adult

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT02895984