Like many college students, Kathy Morrison was an expert at remote learning. While her professors lectured on physics and Shakespeare, Morrison would often stay in bed, giving herself a remote chance to pass.
She had her reasons for skipping classes. Sometimes she was exhausted from the odd jobs she held to help pay her tuition — babysitter, cocktail waitress, and convenience store clerk, among others. Sometimes she had a bad cold that seemed to pursue her throughout her college years. But often, she was just too hungover from drinking to face another lecture.
Morrison (not pictured in article) grew up on a farm near a tiny western sheep town, a place that lacked the temptations and opportunities to get into much trouble. But when she left town to pursue a nursing degree at a small Catholic college, she found herself in a city where the bars actually outnumbered the livestock.
She and her friends would go out whenever bars offered drink specials — which was Monday through Sunday. “I got into the college party scene right away, and soon I was getting wasted almost every night,” she says.
Ironically, the low point of her college life came on one of the rare nights when she was completely sober. After an evening of studying for finals, she met up with some friends and ended up giving a drunken football star a ride home. After inviting himself into her apartment, he raped her.
Morrison’s experience could serve as a primer on the dangers of college life. Aside from constant stress and binge drinking, assault is one of the major hazards of being a student. (Surveys show that every year one in eight college women gets raped, often by an acquaintance.) Whether they attend small private schools or huge state universities, Ivy League schools or community colleges, many students rack up health problems as quickly as credits. The basic threats don’t change from campus to campus, and neither does the need for caution and common sense.
Many students enter college in excellent health, but that can disappear as fast as a keg at a frat party. On campuses across the country, alcohol takes a staggering toll in physical illness and emotional distress, says Jodiann Solito, health education coordinator at Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock University.
In fact, a study published in the Annual Review of Public Health indicated that at least 1,700 college students die each year of alcohol-related injuries, including binge drinking. Drinking also contributes to more than a million injuries and 97,000 sexual assaults among college students, the report said. Moreover, in a 1999 nationwide survey conducted by researchers at Harvard University, 23 percent of students said they had gone on at least three drinking binges in the previous two weeks. (Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in a single setting for men and four or more for women.) Compared with students surveyed in 1993, students today are 20 percent more likely to be frequent binge drinkers.
But the survey also uncovered a healthier trend: Nineteen percent of students don’t drink alcohol at all, and their ranks grew between 1993 and 1999. Solito believes more college students would become teetotalers — or at least moderate drinkers — if they realized that many of their classmates don’t drink alcohol. In survey after survey, college students wildly overestimate how much their classmates drink, she says, and many spend their college careers trying to keep up with the imagined norm.
Solito’s campus is a case in point. Slippery Rock University is a “dry” campus in a “dry” community. Alcohol is forbidden on college grounds, and it’s a six-mile drive to the nearest town with a bar. And yet, Solito says, students there seem just as vulnerable as any to the dangers of drinking.
Some get alcohol poisoning — often fatal — from drinking too much, too fast, while many others begin a long-term addiction. Bar-hopping and endless parties also lead to missed classes, failing grades, car crashes, fights, sexual assault, and sexually transmitted diseases, Solito says. But the students keep drinking, now more than ever. “People live up to expectations,” she says, “and college students are expected to drink beer and raise hell.”
Of course, many students drink to escape the other major threat to their health: stress. “Students today feel a huge amount of pressure, and they’re suffering,” Solito says. They push themselves too hard in class, and then, in many cases, work a night shift at a lousy job. Students who don’t bother studying get their share of stress when grades come out.
As the anxiety builds, students often have trouble sleeping, their immune systems weaken, and their drinking gets more intense. Often, worries about school can trigger full-blown depression, she says.
There may be no way to take the stress out of calculus, but students don’t have to let school anxieties consume their lives, Solito says. She advises students to be more realistic about their goals and learn to accept things they can’t change. She also urges them to develop sound study habits: Begin assignments early rather than the last minute; cut back on all-night “cram sessions,” and don’t drink or smoke while hitting the books. Finally, she says, students will feel much better if they can fit plenty of sleep, regular exercise, and a healthy diet into their schedule.
As Kathy Morrison can attest, it’s almost never too late to turn things around. Humiliated by her failing grades, dazed by several semesters of heavy drinking, and emotionally scarred by the rape, Morrison sought help from a school counselor during her junior year. With his help, she learned to refocus her energy on school and handle her anxieties without the assistance of a bartender.
She stopped drinking, graduated on schedule, and moved to Seattle, where she met her husband. She now works as a social worker linking up local kids with mentors. It’s rewarding work — after all, she knows better than anyone how far a little guidance and support can go.
Here are some other tips for staying healthy at school:
- Use your student health clinic. The staff there is familiar with the ills of college students — and you may never have such inexpensive, convenient health care again. The American College Health Association recommends that you arm yourself with information about meningococcal disease, or meningitis, a contagious, potentially life-threatening bacterial infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, freshmen who live in group housing are at a slightly higher risk for meningitis than the general population. They recommend vaccination for a few special categories of students: Those who have a weakened immune system; those who travel to foreign countries where meningitis is widespread; and those who work in research or clinical environments where they may be exposed to the bacteria.
- Limit yourself to one drink an hour. Because the liver takes about an hour to break down the alcohol in one drink, physicians recommend consuming no more than one drink in that amount of time. (A drink is defined as a beverage containing one-half ounce of ethanol — the amount in a 12-ounce serving of regular beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.)
- Know what to do in case of alcohol poisoning. It’s very rare for college students to be hospitalized or die from drinking so much or so fast that they develop alcohol poisoning, but it has happened. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include not waking up, not responding when talked to, shouted at, or pinched; being unable to stand up; slow or labored breathing; blue, purplish, or clammy skin; a rapid pulse rate; irregular heart rhythm, and lowered blood pressure. People can also choke to death on their own vomit after an alcohol overdose. So if a friend has passed out from drinking rum and coke for the last four hours and you can’t wake him up, call 911 immediately. Turn him on his side to help prevent choking in case he vomits, and don’t leave for any reason until the ambulance gets there. You may save his life.
- Practice safe sex. By some estimates, as many as one in four college students has a sexually transmitted disease such as chlamydia, genital warts, and genital herpes. Some sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise. The most recent statistics show a 6.6 percent increase of chlamydia and an almost 1 percent increase of gonorrhea for 20 to 24-year-olds in the year 2006 to 2007. Learn about these conditions, use condoms, get tested for STDs if you have unsafe sex, and visit a campus doctor at the first sign of infection.
- Take advantage of mentors, peer counselors, and study groups. If you’re a working student, a parent, or if English isn’t your first language, you might need a little extra help. Most universities have good counseling and tutoring programs to help students overwhelmed by their classes. If you’re having trouble managing your time, mentors, dorm advisers, and peer counselors can link you with study groups and writing, math, and computer tutors. Studying with a friend can also cut down on feelings of isolation.
- Travel in packs. If you have to travel across campus late at night, walk with a trusted friend. Many colleges also sponsor night shuttles and escorts who accompany students from classes and libraries to their dorms. And be aware not all assaults are from strangers. Women, in particular, should be extremely careful about letting casual male acquaintances into their rooms or apartments, especially when either has been drinking. One study found that 75 percent of men and 50 percent of women involved in college date rapes were under the influence at the time.
- Watch out for repetitive strain injuries — that is, injuries caused by doing the same motion over and over. Students are vulnerable to RSI because they may spend hours hunched over the keyboard. When typing, make sure your wrists are lower than your elbows; use a comfortable chair; and install a keyboard and mouse tray, if necessary; and take frequent stretch breaks. If you feel pain or tingling in your arms or hands, see the campus doctor.
- Eat well. The old “freshman 15” — the average number of pounds women used to put on during their freshman year — has reportedly turned into the “freshman 25.” Avoid this not by dieting, but by exercising and eating more fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods. That way, you’ll have less of a craving for donuts and other high-calorie sweets.
- Find the gym and hiking trails. Swimming, hiking, working out, or playing intramural sports is a good way to burn stress and renew energy. And if you’re going to a four-year school, you’ll need all that energy to get to graduation.
The American College Health Association publishes many brochures on a variety of college health topics. To view the selection, see http://www.acha.org/info_resources/publications.cfm
Harvard University formed its own RSI Action Group to help other students prevent repetitive strain injuries.
On its Student Learning Center site, the University of California at Berkeley has tips on how to choose classes, how to study, and how to avoid procrastinating.
NIH-supposed Study Finds Strategies to Reduce College Drinking, NIH News, Nov. 12, 2010.
A Snapshot of Annual High-Risk College Drinking Consequences. National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. July 1, 2010.
As College Drinking Problems Rise, New Studies Identify Effective Prevention Strategies, NIH News, June 15, 2009.
Birkel DA, Edgren L. Hatha yoga: improved vital capacity of college students. Altern Ther Health Med. Nov;6(6):55-63.
National Institutes of Health. College Alcohol Problems Exceed Previous Estimates. March 2005. http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/mar2005/niaaa-17.htm
National Center for Victims of Crime. Teen Crime Project. 2010
Centers for Disease Control. STDs in Adolescent and Young Adults. January 2009. http://www.cdc.gov/STD/stats07/adol.htm