Our kids are drinking themselves to death

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Mary Ciametti's son Christian, a student at Temple University, died last January from alcohol poisoning. She has started the "Don't Stall, Just Call" campaign, aimed at college students, to increase knowledge of the symptoms and dangers of alcohol poisoning. Tuesday, February 9, 2016, Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. ( MATTHEW HALL / For The Inquirer )

I’ve barely gotten my hello out before Mary Ciammetti jumps in.

The Penn State hazing death of Timothy Piazza isn’t just about the Greek system, she says unequivocally.

As repugnant as I find the thought of heartless fraternity members failing to help Piazza as he lay dying after an alcohol-fueled hazing ritual, Ciammetti is right.

Ciammetti’s youngest son, Christian, died in 2015 from binge drinking. He was 20. Unlike Piazza’s negligent fraternity brothers, Ciammetti’s roommates at Temple University frantically tried to save him after he came home fall-down drunk from a party.

What happened to Piazza could have easily happened anywhere – although it should disturb us how often binge drinking is at the center of things going south at fraternities, and, more universally, why so many young people in this country have such an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

Hint: The kids aren’t the only ones binge drinking. Although college students commonly binge drink, 70 percent of binge-drinking episodes involve adults age 26 and older. And that overindulgence comes with a price tag that costs a lot more than a few of those beer and whiskey Citywide Specials. In 2010, binge drinking was responsible for $191 billion in losses in productivity, health care, crime, and other expenses.

We rightly train our anger and disgust at those who failed to help Piazza, but these tragedies are as much about personal accountability as a collective obligation to one another that we too often fail to meet:

No one poured the liquor that killed Ciammetti’s son or Piazza down their throats. But we all hope that if a loved one is in trouble, someone – anyone - would break from the dangerous and deadly groupthink that killed Piazza. That they would help.

But that doesn’t always happen. And no matter how many people or institutions are charged after the fact, or how many fraternities are shut down, none of it will bring back the dead or ease the lifelong pain of Ciammetti, who is reminded of her son, a landscape engineering major, every time she passes a beautiful garden.

And nothing will ease the pain of the Piazza family, whose grief is laid raw for the world to see any time they stand in front reporters at news conferences and talk about a young man’s smile that they will now see only in pictures.

We need a cultural shift that can turn the tide of tragedy. And that shift must happen way before these kids become a statistic. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 1,825 college students between  ages 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries.

“My son binge drank, and he did that to himself,” says Ciammetti, who lives in Conshohocken. “His roommates did not know the signs of alcohol poisoning and what to do. They are educated now.”

Since her son’s death, Ciammetti has been on a mission, one that’s so consumed her that she’s giving up her day job to dedicate her time to educating young people about the signs of alcohol poisoning and how to get help, if they need it, through a campaign called Don’t Stall, Just Call.

It’s still painful to talk about. Each presentation, each new death, is like ripping off a Band-Aid from a wound that will never heal. But there’s no turning back.

“It’s what I am meant to do,” Ciammetti said.

Already, she’s brought the message to numerous groups and colleges, including at Penn State just a couple of months after Piazza’s death. Temple University has embraced it. 

Every single school in the country should.

In the meantime, I thought I’d offer some good advice with a short-term solution I’ve heard: We have designated drivers. What about designated watchers?

Not good enough, Ciammetti said.

When her son’s roommates got him to bed, they did “the watch,” making sure to put him on his side, making sure he didn’t choke on his vomit.

Meanwhile, his body temperature dipped dangerously low, and he went into cardiac arrest.

Don’t stall, just call.