Exploring life as a student

Abigail Henderson is a Young People in Recovery Development Lead, as part of her role she is exploring support students have on campus, environments that are traditionally abstinence hostile.

When we think of the quintessential British Fresher’s week we immediately think of a week’s worth of partying, drinking and drugs. It is considered the norm for young people to go out partying every single night and ultimately try to ‘connect’ with new people. Fresher’s week can be extremely scary for young people; often enough it is moving away from home and to a new city to make new friends and begin a new chapter in their life. Despite the normal nerves it is also very exciting; it is essentially freedom for young people to do whatever they like, it is the beginning of becoming a responsible adult.


It is important to highlight that this article is not about disgracing students that choose to spend their university life partying and drinking because the majority do and have a great time whilst achieving excellent grades but this article is to highlight the young students that are often sometimes forgotten about; the young students that do not drink or drug. Official figures from the Office of National Statistics released earlier this year show that one in four 16- to 24-year-olds class themselves as entirely teetotal, up from 1 in 5 a decade ago, so why are they still being forgotten about?


I’ve been dipping my toes into the world of sober societies for a while but recently I discovered an interesting Buzzfeed article. Sober societies offer a safe place for students who chose not to drink or don’t drink an excessive amount to meet other students and ultimately connect and feel a part of. I was in awe of the society and I immediately contacted them asking if they would answer a couple of questions. I then went on to discover many more sober societies around the UK, reaching out to all of them and my heart slowly began to swell at every email reply I received from students willing to help me.


Within 3 days I had received emails from 5 universities all willing to help and I was waiting on emails from many more. Some of the questions involved the origin of the societies, if they received support from the university and student union and how it was received by other students. It is interesting that every reply I have had in regards to receiving support from the university or student union conveys some negative connotations, however it is prominent to highlight that the universities and student unions fully supported and were entirely grateful for the student’s willingness to persist with the sober societies. To respect the societies their answers will remain anonymous.









Obviously the students persisted and succeeded as their societies are doing fantastic and this only portrays that there is a need for sober societies in universities; one society began with four students sat in their halls and decided to begin almost a revolution. These students are challenging the ‘norms’ of university life and it is astounding to see the societies grow organically from students that ooze compassion and are willing to fight for change. It is important to understand why the student union and universities are primarily hesitant of the idea of sober societies when first presented; maybe it’s as simple of lack of awareness, as humans we’re sometimes quick to stereotype and students are arguably stereotypically ‘massive drinkers’.

“Before Fresher’s fair, we had 70 students and a few days after Fresher’s, we had 200 members. Now, we have 320 society members which is fantastic as the society only officially started last month.”






“We appealed the society and finally got accepted but I still felt that the SU didn’t have much faith in us.”

So what motivated the students to turn their vision into a society? It’s simple, they felt alone. Loneliness can be one of our greatest motivators and the young students were fully aware that they were not the only ones who choose not to drink or drug; the statistics prove this as one in four 16 – 24 year olds consider themselves as entirely teetotal. I believe that there is a need for sober societies in every university in the UK and that they work. It could be argued that it’s quite sad that the majority of the students were laughed at when they initially presented their vision to the student union; this only highlights the struggles young people who don’t drink or drug face and the lack of support in early days. As part of the criteria of the NUS Alcohol Impact programme it claims that it will be ‘creating more inclusive spaces.’ for students which we can only assume that they mean spaces which are not dominated by alcohol. Nonetheless when students are initially presenting themselves and their proposal of a sober society the student unions are apparently laughing at the proposal and telling them that there isn’t a need for it.



It is important to address that I am a young person that works in drug and alcohol services, I’m in recovery myself, I have been to university and my main passion in life lies with recovery so my way of thinking differs massively to a person that works in a university and spends the majority of their working life with students. We both see young people and their needs differently but ultimately we both share the same values; the students’ happiness and wellbeing. The benefits of sober societies massively outweigh the negatives; societies are brilliant alone, they bring students together with a common interest or passion to ultimately celebrate that. The diversity of societies across the UK is prevalent with societies such as The Harry Potter society, airsoft society, baking society, knitting society, Doctor Who society and many, many more the list is extensive. Sober societies connect the students that feel alone, it offers somewhere safe and inviting to go for students who don’t drink or drug or do drink but fancy an alternative event for a week or maybe a month, it promotes positive wellbeing, it highlights and promotes that students can have a brilliant time without drugs or alcohol and it challenges stigma and stereotypes. The benefits and strengths of sober societies most definitely outweigh the negatives.


“I think it’s important to not push sobriety and just push positive wellbeing and mental health….It is so lovely to watch friendships grow and students mixing with others who they may never have thought of speaking to and it has really opened my eyes to the amount of students who suffer from the pressures of alcohol and drugs at uni because it is the ‘norm’.”


“The reason we are inclusive is because we are not pushing sobriety, we just want to show that you can have a real great time without substances. We have students who occasionally drink but don’t like the pressure so they love the society. We have religious students who do not drink, we have students who have never drunk, we have students who can’t drink for physical illness reason and we have students who can’t drink due to mental illness. As well as this, we have students in recovery as well as those who want to eventually stop drinking all together. We have students who have had family/friends who have suffered death, substance abuse, misuse and addiction. And some students just don’t like alcohol.”

















“Starting this society has changed my life and has made me feel normal. It sounds so silly but that’s the best way to put it. My mental health has improved massively.”

Reflecting on my own time at university things might have been massively different if my university offered a sober society; I arrived to my halls with 6Ls of Frosty Jacks in my suitcase. I morphed into how the archetypal student should behave; I drank every night and day, ultimately ending up in a very dark lonely place. I moved back home eventually because my university offered no support. My plea for help and support was shrugged off because ‘I was a fresher and that’s what fresher’s do.’ It is important to highlight that I don’t think it was a personal attack and that my university didn’t necessarily care about me but perhaps they lacked understanding, they are not equipped to deal with that; they’re academics they’re not specialists in drug and alcohol use. I applaud and I’m in awe with the students that have begun the sober society movement; you can have fun without drugs and alcohol. We are willing for change and that change will happen.

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