Rehabbing the Musician's Image

Brenda Pike
February 25, 2009

The concepts are inextricably linked in the minds of most Americans: sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. But for Berklee students, between classes, rehearsals, auditions, and outside gigs, there just isn't time for the same level of substance abuse as even the average college student.

That's what the Counseling and Advising Center found when it conducted a survey of Berklee students in 2004, funded by a grant from the Department of Justice. The challenge then became conveying this information to the student community, who often feel that they're the exception to the binge-drinking, pot-smoking rule.

Berklee needs to advertise "the difference between perceptions and reality," says counselor Barbara Martin. The Counseling and Advising Center's goal is to convey what it really means to be a Berklee student—and maybe in the process redefine the relationship between creativity and substance abuse in general.

To that end, the center is focusing on communicating its findings with students. Posters have been placed around campus with the surprising statistics: "Binge drinking at Berklee is 10% lower than the national average." "The majority of Berklee students spend at least 18 hours per week practicing and/or studying." "Berklee students believe that 79% of their peers smoke cigarettes, while only 16% actually do."

The confidential survey garnered an above-average 35% response rate and was based on the nationwide Core Institute survey, so that Berklee's statistics on substance abuse could be directly compared to other colleges across the country.

The type of campaign the Counseling and Advising Center is using to communicate the survey targets the biggest disparities between how much students use and how much they think other Berklee students use. It works because unlike "just say no" and "this is your brain on drugs" it's not preachy or judgmental. It simply corrects an overestimation of use driven by, say, seeing students standing around smoking on the sidewalk.

"What might work on other campuses is not necessarily going to work here. You can't have a cookie-cutter approach," says Sara Regan, director of the Counseling and Advising Center.

For another Berklee-specific approach, last year the center launched an annual substance abuse songwriting contest. It received many entries and settled on the touching "Last Call" by student Keppie Coutts.

The Counseling and Advising Center's work on substance abuse prevention recently won it a $180,000 grant from the Department of Justice. Now the center has hired a team to dedicate themselves to this subject. Soon the posters will also be placed in bathrooms on campus, gaining a captive audience. A follow-up survey is scheduled for March, and the counselors are working with the new First-Year Student Advising Program to incorporate their message throughout the student experience.

The center also held a session at Berklee's annual BTOT (Berklee Teachers on Teaching) program, educating faculty on the signs and symptoms of substance abuse, and letting them know who they can contact to help them help their students.

"Come from a place of caring," Martin advises faculty. "And recognize what you see. It's important that you notice."

That's good advice for Berklee students, too, who are coming to recognize that the substance abuse that they see around them does not accurately reflect the majority of the student body.