College students embark on an exciting new journey when they move to campus. This move also introduces a whole host of new and unique health concerns and risks. College students are at risk for gaining weight and being sedentary, for being victims of violence, for sexually transmitted diseases, for mental illness and suicide, and for using and abusing dangerous drugs and alcohol.
College should be a time to have fun, to learn, to meet new people, and to have new experiences, but all these positive things can go off the rails because of poor choices. Students need to be aware of the risks they face and make good choices about alcohol and drugs, nutrition, getting involved, and asking for help when it is needed.
A survey of thousands of college students conducted in Minnesota by researchers provides a snapshot of the health of young people across the U.S. The survey found that mental health is a major issue with 27 percent of students having been diagnosed with some type of mental illness. The most common of these were anxiety and depression. Nearly 40 percent of the students were categorized as overweight or obese, and almost ten percent were uninsured.
Alcohol also arose as a major health issue with more than 70 percent of students reporting drinking, and 37 percent reporting engaging in dangerous drinking. Twenty-five percent of students admitted to smoking. Nearly 25 percent of female students reported having experienced sexual assault, and nearly 80 percent of all students reported being sexually active.
Leading Causes of Death for College-Age Students
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compiles the ten leading causes of death by age group, which gives useful insights into the kinds of health risks that different populations face. College students fall into the age 15 to 24 category, and the leading cause of death for this group is unintentional injury. This can be further broken down to show that motor vehicle accidents cause the most unintentional fatalities, with firearms and poisoning the next most common cause. Poisoning includes unintentional overdoses on drugs or alcohol.
The second leading cause of death for this age group is suicide, followed by homicide, cancer, heart disease, congenital defects, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and stroke. The top three causes of death for students are preventable and highlight the fact that safety, mental health, and violence are major issues for this population.
Nutrition and Exercise
Transitioning from living at home with parents to living independently is an important change, but it can also lead to some unhealthy habits. Everyone knows about the so-called freshmen 15, the 15 pounds that many students gain in their first year on campus. Poor food choices, drinking more alcohol, and being sedentary are common reasons college students put on pounds. Gaining weight is a health risk, as being overweight or obese is tied to high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
Students can combat weight gain by paying attention to what they eat, getting a healthy diet, and exercising regularly. With so many food choices available, making the right ones can be challenging, but students should aim to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains while avoiding excessive sugar, saturated fats, alcohol, and processed or junk foods. With a focus on studying, getting exercise can be challenging. Students should consider joining recreational sports teams or taking advantage of the campus gym. Doing these things with friends helps with accountability.
Reproductive Health and Sexual Assault
The majority of college students are sexually active, which puts them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. The most important factor in avoiding these is being educated and practicing safe sex. Most college campuses provide health care and education resources to help students learn about their options. Regular checkups to test for sexually transmitted diseases are important, as is the use of condoms and birth control. Knowing your partner and either abstaining from sex or engaging in a monogamous relationship are also good ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
For all college students, but especially women, sexual assault is a real and frightening problem. Women between the ages of 18 and 24, whether in college or not, are at an elevated risk for sexual violence. Statistics show that 23 percent of female undergraduate college students have experienced sexual assault. The rate is just over five percent for undergraduate male students.
Students on college campuses can take steps to prevent being assaulted, but these crimes may still happen. To reduce the risk, female students should stick together and avoid walking alone on campus at night or being alone at parties without friends. They should be aware of their surroundings at all times. Walking across campus while listening to music may make a student a target, for instance, for a perpetrator looking for a distracted victim.
Alcohol is a major health issue for college students. Excessive drinking can cause death, and can be a factor in assault, including sexual assault. Drinking is associated with lowered academic performance. One quarter of college students report that drinking has caused them to miss class, fall behind, or do poorly on exams or assignments. Drinking may also contribute to sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies, motor vehicle accidents, other types of accidents that cause injuries, suicide, general health problems, and addiction. One-fifth of college students meet the diagnostic qualifications for alcohol use disorder.
Binge drinking is a particularly serious problem. It is defined as having a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher, which is usually the result of having four drinks for women or five drinks for men in a period of two hours or less. Binge drinking put students at serious risk for some of the above consequences, and it also leads over time to organ damage and lasting health consequences.
Research has found that there are certain risk factors that increase the likelihood that someone will engage in problem drinking in college. One is having parents who never talked to them about the consequences of drinking. Parents can have a big impact by engaging their teens in conversations about alcohol and the damage it can cause. Another factor is the college itself. Those with strong athletics and Greek programs are more likely to have students who drink excessively.
It is not only alcohol that poses a problem for college students. Abusing drugs may also be an issue. Prescription drugs are popular as drugs of abuse for college age-students. One common drug found on campuses is Adderall. A stimulant used to treat ADHD in children, this and similar drugs is often abused by college students for a few reasons. As a stimulant it increases wakefulness and focus. Students may use these drugs to stay awake to study or finish projects. They may also use stimulants to stay awake to party. In this case they may also use the drug in combination with alcohol, which is even more harmful.
Abusing stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin is risky. These drugs, especially when used at higher doses, can cause headaches, irritability, dry mouth, insomnia, loss of appetite, rapid mood swings, and depression. These drugs can also become habit-forming, leading to a dangerous addiction or dependence.
College students may also abuse opioid painkillers. These are drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and hydrocodone, among many others. These are highly addictive painkillers, which give a high similar to heroin. Abuse of these drugs can cause addiction and a number of other health problems, but one of the biggest concerns is overdose. It is easy to accidentally take too much and to die from respiratory failure.
Another type of drug that can be harmful is an antidepressant. Depression is a common mental health concern for college students, but the drugs used to treat it can cause serious consequences. Although students are unlikely to abuse these drugs, there are dangerous side effects even when used as directed. For children, teens, and adults in their 20s, antidepressants increase the risk of suicide. Drugs like Paxil, Lexapro, Celexa, Cymbalta, and many others fall into this category.
Mental health conditions like depression represent a major area of concern for college-aged students. Surveys and studies have recently found that mental illness is much more widespread and the consequences more serious than anyone imagined. Mental health is in the top few health concerns that students need to be prepared to face. According to recent statistics, one in twelve college students has made a plan for suicide. Half of students report having felt hopeless at some time in the last year and 60 percent reported feeling lonely. Mental health centers on campuses are reporting more students than ever seeking help.
Depression and anxiety are the most common mental illnesses seen in college students. To combat these and the consequences of leaving them untreated, students need to be aware of the signs, in themselves and others, and to take action to give and ask for help when needed. Warning signs include feelings of sadness and hopelessness, excessive worry, an increase in alcohol or drug use, mood swings, withdrawal from others, changes in eating or sleeping habits, trouble concentrating, a drop in academic performance, aggression, and loss of energy or interest in activities.
Stress is another mental health concern. While it is not a mental illness in itself, excessive stress can contribute to mental illness, make conditions worse, and cause physical health problems. Academic pressure can cause stress and students need to be aware of this and to combat stress through exercise, getting sleep, eating right, socializing, and knowing when taking on too much has caused unhealthy stress.
Combating Health Problems by Getting Involved
There are many different types of health problems facing college students from depression to violence to substance abuse, and many of these risks can be mitigated by getting involved on campus. Reaching out to make new friends, joining positive social groups, and joining volunteer organizations or religious groups are all great ways to build up a strong support network. Having friends and social interactions goes a long way toward preventing mental health issues, mitigating stress, and resisting the urge to indulge in drugs or alcohol.